Government by Trial Balloon

22 Mar

One of the first times anyone ever launched a trial balloon, things didn’t go perfectly well.

It was back in 1783. The famed Montgolfier brothers, inventors of the hot-air balloon (which is still called a “montgolfière” in French), had been experimenting with levitating air-filled silk balloons in their hometown of Annonay, in southern France.

Word of their experiments soon reached the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, and one of the brothers was summoned north to report on their discoveries.

But before Etienne Montgolfier was able to do so, a rival inventor named Jacques Charles launched his own trial balloon – this one hydrogen-filled – into the Paris sky.

By some accounts, the launch itself was a success. Hundreds of awestruck onlookers watched the balloon rise heavenward.

But a storm soon blew in and carried it miles away into the countryside. Charles’ balloon landed in a small village, where peasants mistook it for an evil demon attacking from the sky, panicked, and destroyed it with pitchforks and knives.

That’s the way it goes sometimes with trial balloons.

Flash forward some 227 years to the present day. Now, the trial balloons that get launched are metaphorical ones. Politicians float unmanned ideas into the public realm, hoping the rest of us will keep our pitchforks and knives away, and instead gaze awestruck and heavenward at their proposed policies.

But as in 1783 France, things don’t always go perfectly well.

Look at some of the trial balloons our own federal government has floated in recent weeks.

Last month, on the very day that Parliament came back after a lengthy prorogation, in an otherwise unmemorable Speech from the Throne, the government announced plans to “ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.”

The government was apparently proposing that a single line of “O Canada” – “… in all thy sons command…” – be changed back to its original lyric of more than a century ago: “… thou dost in us command…”

The proposal caught the country by surprise. Canadians had just spent two weeks happily singing the national anthem over and over again during the Winter Olympic Games.

It didn’t take too long for the pitchforks to come out. The backlash from citizens was so quick and so virulent that a mere two days after the Speech from the Throne was read, the Prime Minister’s press secretary came out with the following statement:

“The government will not proceed any further to change our national anthem. We have offered to hear from Canadians on this issue and they have already spoken loud and clear. They overwhelmingly do not want to open the issue.”

Not pretty. But that’s the way it goes sometimes with trial balloons.

Then a few weeks later, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon seemed to float a trial balloon of his own. He announced that the government’s plan for aid targeted to women and children in developing countries – the “signature” initiative of this year’s coming G-8 and G-20 meetings hosted by Canada – would not include contraception.

“It does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning. Indeed, the purpose of this is to be able to save lives,” Cannon told a Parliamentary committee.

Opposition politicians, media commentators and health experts quickly pounced on the minister’s comments, pointing out that family planning is central to maternal and child health in the world’s poorest countries. Critics accused the government of taking a page from the policies of former U.S. President George W. Bush, and putting socially conservative ideology before science and health.

Whether the minister was floating a trial balloon or simply misspeaking, it only took two days — again, two days — for the government to announce that they weren’t excluding contraception from their plan after all.

“We are not closing doors against any options, including contraception,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in the House of Commons.

Another balloon… popped.

And those are simply two of a number of possible examples of a trend that seemed to define the first few weeks back at work for a government that had prorogued Parliament in order to “recalibrate” its agenda. Other burst trial balloons included public statements on government-funded Internet access and on political flyers that MPs send out at taxpayers’ expense.

If the government indeed recalibrated its agenda, it’s hard to understand why there are still so many trial balloons floating around.

And if you’re going to float those balloons, it’s probably a good idea to check for pitchforks ahead of time.

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