A deep chill descends over Parliament Hill

Published on Nov. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Back in the olden days, when prime ministers still deigned to speak to provincial premiers, they would hold gatherings called first ministers’ conferences. This happened fairly often, perhaps once a year, depending on what was happening in the country at the time.

The prime minister would invite his provincial counterparts to Ottawa to talk about the economy, the Constitution, the state of the federation, pensions, medicare or even that old chestnut, the reform of the Senate.  The premier of Ontario always sat on the PM’s right, the premier of Quebec on his left, with the others placed around the table in the order of entry into Confederation.

If he was in a good mood, which he often was, their genial host would invite his guests home for drinks and dinner. They might pose for a group photograph, then hold press conferences to tell the Canadian public what they had discussed and decided, or left undecided.
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Thinking back on it, it was a comforting ritual. Things might be going badly in the land – whether because of international issues, persistent unemployment, hyper-inflation or the threat of separatism – but at least the leaders, regardless of partisan affiliation, would gather to try to sort out problems and seek solutions. The process was reassuringly Canadian.

That was then. This is now. In the Sun King era in Ottawa, Stephen Harper does not hold federal-provincial conferences. Now that he has a majority government, he doesn’t think he needs to.

It’s not so much that he actively dislikes individual premiers (although he manages to control his affection for Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne), as it is that he actively resists the notion of meeting with them en masse. That would mean sharing the big national stage with a gaggle of mere provincial politicians, who would undoubtedly try to make him spend his money to fix their problems. He has cabinet ministers who can take care of whatever it may be that is troubling these lesser leaders. And why should he have them home for dinner?

The premiers think of themselves as partners in Confederation. He treats them as uninvited guests at the national table.

The chill between Ottawa and Toronto is deepening. Premier Wynne wants to meet Harper to discuss such legitimate issues as infrastructure, the auto industry, improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, and violence against aboriginal women and girls. She wrote to Harper in September to request a meeting. Last week, two months later, she got a reply but no agreement to meet. “I encourage you to work with the responsible federal ministers to make further progress in these priority areas over the coming year,” the prime minister wrote.

Why the snub? It has everything to do with partisan politics. In the past – though not always, admittedly – federal and provincial leaders tried to keep out of each other’s patch in election season. Not today. Wynne is openly campaigning for Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals in the pre-launch to the federal election of 2015, just as Harper and his people vigorously supported Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives in the Ontario election this year.

The federal election next October will be won or lost in Ontario. In Wynne, the Liberals have a potent ally. She has a fresh majority mandate and is considerably more popular in the province – especially in Toronto – than Harper is. So don’t expect him to do her any favours between now and election day.

The breakdown in relations between Ottawa and Ontario has had one interesting effect. Left without someone to talk to in Ottawa, Wynne is working around Harper by making common cause with Quebec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, a fellow Liberal, starting with electricity swaps (they signed an agreement when they met in Toronto last week), climate change and pipelines.

For Ontario and Quebec to work together is in the best tradition of Confederation. That they are doing it today highlights the leadership vacuum that exists in Ottawa.

Are the Tories flying under the radar on the F-35?

Published Nov. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Now that MPs are back in Ottawa from their week-long Remembrance Day break and the Prime Minister has returned from telling off Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit Down Under, might one venture an impolitic question?

Who is responsible for pulling the wool over the Canadian public’s eyes on the F-35, that hugely expensive stealth warplane that Ottawa has been dithering over for the better part of a decade?

Is it the Conservative cabinet, which would dearlylove to acquire 65 of these magnificent flying machines, if only it could figure out a way to sneak the purchase (estimated price: $45 billion over the lifetime of the aircraft) past the auditor general, parliamentary budget officer and the opposition parties? Or is it the Pentagon, which, being under heavy political fire in Washington for cost overruns, is anxious to spread the F-35 risk among as many friendly nations as possible? Continue reading

Or is it our own generals at the Defence Department in Ottawa and their allies in the aircraft industry (our very own “military-industrial complex”), who may be desperate to nail down the purchase of the snappy new planes before a federal election next year that could produce a new government with ideas of wiser ways to spend $45 billion?

The Harper government keeps insisting a final decision has not been made on new fighter aircraft. But those denials have worn thin. Last week’s column mentioned a leak from a Pentagon briefing to the effect that Canada had asked to accelerate the purchase of its first four F-35s, with a letter of intent to be sent to Washington this month and a purchase order placed by next March.

This information was contained on slide 11 of a 14-slide, high-level briefing by Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer, to Deborah Lee James, secretary of the U.S. Air Force. The Pentagon subsequently confirmed the accuracy of the leak.

These four early-production aircraft, to be used for pilot training, would cost an anticipated $640 million. More than that, they would effectively commit Ottawa replacing the aging CF-18s with F-35s. (Who in his right mind would spend $640 million to train pilots on planes they were never going to be asked to fly?)

Stephen Harper was Auckland on an official visit to New Zealand when reporters caught up to his entourage last week. Officials travelling with him insisted Canada will not be buying those four F-35s and said no decision will be made on which warplane to purchase until firm details on cost and capabilities are received from Lockheed Martin, the U.S. manufacturer.

Who to believe? Assuming the officials with Harper were being truthful, is it possible that the U.S. general briefing the secretary of the air force deliberately misled her with a view to shoring up political support for the troubled program? Alternatively, is it possible that a senior person in the Canadian military or even in the cabinet slipped some erroneous (or premature) information to the Pentagon in the hope of backing the Harper government into a purchase commitment?

Last week, there was another leak, this time to the Ottawa Citizen. Ever since 2006, the Harper government has been a participant in a nine-nation partnership that helps finance the development of the F-35. The way it works, each country kicks in some money every year; in return, manufacturers in that country get a chance to bid on contracts to supply components for the F-35.

This year, Ottawa was asked to contribute $22.5 million. The defence department refused to pay and passed the bill to the RCAF, which pleaded poverty. When the dust settled, the department found the cash, gave it to the RCAF and told the air force to pay the bill.

This annual tithing exercise is part of the 2006 partnership agreement; it commits Canada to investing $551 million over 40 years. The next payment falls due on May 1. And no decision has been made? Really?

Are Tories fast-tracking the F-35 decision?

Published Nov. 10, 2014 in the Waterloo Region Record.

Love them or hate them, you have to concede one thing to the Harper Conservatives. They are persistent. Some might say stubborn or high-handed, even when wrong-headed. Once they have embarked on a course, they do not let themselves be deflected – not by public opinion, not by the courts (the restoration of anti-prostitution laws being a current example), not by Parliament, not by expert opinion, and certainly not by common sense.

The long drawn-out saga of the F-35 fighter aircraft is an example of the Conservatives’ refusal to heed both expert opinion and common sense. They have been committed to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning, the most expensive warplane in history, ever since they took office in 2006. In 2012 – faced with production delays, performance issues, soaring costs (from an original estimate of $16 billion over the lifetime of 65 aircraft to a revised projection of $45 billion), and a devastating report by the Auditor General – the government ordered a review.

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No one outside the government knows what the review, conducted in secret, involved. Did it look seriously at other (and cheaper) aircraft from other manufacturers? Did it assess whether the F-35 actually meets Canada’s military requirements? (And what, by the way, are those requirements? Maybe the Canadian public would like to know.) Did the review even consider the pilot-safety issue that would inevitably arise if the single-engine F-35 were deplored to patrol the vast distances across the far north and along Canada’s coastlines?

We don’t know these things because the Conservatives haven’t told us. But the review must have endorsed the F-35 because it found its way back to the cabinet agenda this past spring for a decision. In June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, apparently not satisfied he could make a convincing case to the public, bought some time by removing the item from the agenda. The government bought some more time in September by deciding to spend unannounced millions to extend until 2025 the life of the CF-18, the 30-year-old twin-engine warplane that the F-35 is meant to replace.

These moves seemed to suggest that the Tories were punting a final F-35 purchase decision until after the federal election, scheduled for October 2015.

But things are not always what they seem to be in the worlds of politics and weapons acquisition. Last week, Canadians learned, courtesy of a leak from the U.S. Pentagon, that Ottawa is proposing to fast-track its acquisition of F-35s. (Why Canadians have to learn about important issues, anything from drug safety to military purchases, from the Americans rather than from their own government is an interesting question. But I digress.)

According to the leaked Pentagon briefing, Ottawa plans to send a letter of intent to Washington this month confirming that Canada will place an order for at least four F-35s by the end of this fiscal year (next March 31). The deal is this: the U.S. Air Force has four places on the F-35 production schedule for aircraft to be delivered in 2016 or 2017. The RCAF would take those positions, and use those four aircraft for pilot training; in return the USAF would take four slots that are earmarked for Canada on the 2019 delivery schedule.

If, as we are told, no final decision has been made to buy F-35s, why the rush to order them? A cynic might suggest it has something to do with the polls. According to EKOS Research, concern about public safety, in the wake of terrorism-linked incidents in Ottawa and Quebec, has boosted the Conservatives’ standing as they rose from 12 points behind the Liberals a month earlier to just three points down today.

That movement was enough to cause Frank Graves, president of EKOS, to speculate that Harper might find it expedient to ignore the fixed-election law again and call a snap early election. In this scenario, a multi-billion dollar military purchase, plus a tough-on-crime domestic agenda, might be the ticket to re-elect the Tories. Or is this far too cynical?

Ghomeshi affair shows the importance of investigative journalism

Published on Nov. 2, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Jian Ghomeshi saga, sordid though it is, has been fascinating on several levels as it played out over the past week or 10 days.

On the most fundamental level, there’s the serious issue of violence against women; yes, in some situations, the state does have a place in the bedrooms of the nation.

On another level, there’s the potency of celebrity in the world of media and entertainment. In the lilliputian universe of Canadian radio, Ghomeshi was a giant; the women he allegedly abused were afraid to complain about him. Then there’s the peril of hubris, as Ghomeshi has surely discovered. Next, there’s the power of social media both to raise up and bring down those who play around with it; Ghomeshi used it to build a following and his own Facebook posting brought him down.

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And, sadly, there’s the cowardice – or call it the willing complicity – of his employer, the CBC, which knew of the allegations against its star radio host for many months, but made its inquiries so cursory that it was able to satisfy itself that Ghomeshi was being forthcoming and truthful when he lied that he was the innocent victim of a vindictive jilted lover. The CBC chose to believe the lie because it feared the consequences of the truth.

The aspect I wish to consider today is something different. It is what the Ghomeshi affair tells us about the importance of investigative reporting. To many people, investigative reporting is just sensationalism for the sake of selling newspapers or attracting audiences. Those people would be wrong.

Investigative reporting is at the heart of responsible journalism. It exposes corruption, abuse of trust and criminality in secret places. It reveals truths that those in power do not want told – in scandals ranging from Watergate in the United States to Airbus in Canada.

But investigative reporting is not easy and it is not cheap – two reasons why there is so little of it done these days. It requires patient, time-consuming research. A single story may tie up reporters for weeks or even months. Editors and lawyers will pick over every word looking for possible libel.

The best investigative reporting in Canada today is being done by the Toronto Star. All other news organizations followed in its wake as it peeled off the layers of the Jian Ghomeshi story. (When the National Post, Globe and Mail and the CBC itself are reduced to quoting Star disclosures, you know that newspaper is on to something big.)

Rumours about Ghomeshi and issues with women began circulating in Toronto media and legal circles last spring. The Star’s Kevin Donovan started work on the story in May, interviewing four women who claimed to have been sexually abused by Ghomeshi. None of the four had gone to the police and none was prepared at that point to let the Star publish her name. Although the Star believed the women – they independently described similar non-consensual experiences – the newspaper decided it would be irresponsible to run such an explosive story based on information from unnamed sources.

That changed when Ghomeshi went on Facebook last weekend to claim that he was the victim of a smear campaign. “A major Canadian media publication (referring to the Star) did due diligence but never printed a story. One assumes they recognized these attempts to recast my sexual behaviour were fabrications,” he wrote.

The Facebook posting was a big mistake. His public denial and assertion prompted the Star to run the story it had been sitting on. It cited separate incidents involving four women. As the week went on, that number grew to nine. At least two agreed to be named and three filed formal complaints with the police.

The sad saga is not over yet. Police are on the case. CBC has hired investigators to find out who in the organization knew what and when they found out. Jian Ghomeshi’s once bright career is in ruins. Sad is the word.

Canadians concerned, but not panicked

Published Oct. 27, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Reflecting on the events in Ottawa last week, the most striking thing was not the violence that took the life of a young soldier, Nathan Cirillo, at the National War Memorial and that of his murderer in a shootout in Parliament’s Hall of Honour. The most striking thing was the response to that violence from politicians, the police, the press and the Canadian public.

True, there was some silly talk on the airwaves about how this “assault on the heart of Canadian democracy” would change Canada and Canadians forever. That was nonsense. For the most part, the response was measured, restrained and thoughtful. Concerned, yes. Panicked, no. Conspiracy theories did not attract enough oxygen to survive.

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There was a sense that we live in an age where unstable individuals — like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa or Martin Couture-Rouleau, who killed warrant officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec — will sometimes live out their religious or other fantasies by resorting to violence. It has happened before and, the world being as it is, it will happen again.

Every time it happens, there is talk of a need for greater security, for tighter laws and increased enforcement. Some steps get taken, but nothing draconian. As Canadians, we value an open society, and we want to keep it that way.

We don’t like politicians who play partisan politics with security issues, as some U.S. politicians do. We don’t like media who, as some U.S. cable stations do, play the fear card, trying to build audiences by fanning panic on issues such as ISIL and Ebola.

We try to keep a sense of perspective, and I thought CBC in particular did an exemplary job of that last week — reporting the facts, sifting truth from rumour, avoiding speculation and refusing to jump to premature conclusions.

Perspective means remembering what has gone before. I was in the Centre Block on the day in May 1966, when Paul Joseph Chartier, an embittered and unemployed security guard from Toronto, blew himself up in a Commons washroom. He had gone there to light a bomb that he had made from 10 sticks of dynamite, determined to throw it into the chamber to kill as many politicians as possible. As we learned at the subsequent inquiry, he probably would have succeeded if the clerk from whom he bought the dynamite had not sold him a shorter fuse than the one he asked for.

Security was tightened a bit after that. Even so, I recall rushing to Parliament Hill on the night in October 1970 when the FLQ murdered Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte in Montreal. For some reason, all the lights were off in the Parliament Buildings. It was eerie. I was unchallenged as I ran down the darkened Hall of Honour — and smack into Bud Drury, a senior minister in the Pierre Trudeau cabinet. After we picked ourselves up and, being Canadian, apologized, Drury told me he was headed to an emergency cabinet meeting. So I followed him.

In late August 1973, about 1,800 striking railway workers from Montreal decided to carry their protest to Ottawa. Many of them, as I wrote that day, “had slaked their thirst with something stronger than lemonade on the bus trip.” On their arrival, after pausing to scuffle with a few Maoists, they decided to storm Parliament Hill.

Some of them rushed into the Centre Block, past the startled (and unarmed) security guards, and down the Hall of Honour to what they assumed was the Commons chamber. Instead, they found themselves at the entrance to the Parliamentary Library, where they came face to face, not with cabinet ministers, but with a large marble statue of Queen Victoria. As always, Victoria radiated disapproval. Utterly confused, the strikers beat a hasty retreat.

Now, no one would suggest Queen Victoria is an answer to security issues on the Hill. But her statute is still there, still disapproving, a reminder that even in troubled times, some things remain constant.

Tory is a ‘safe’ bet to win mayoral race

Published Oct. 20, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in 1972, when his Liberal government lost its majority in the election against Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives — coming within two seats of losing the government entirely — Justin Trudeau’s dad, Pierre, struck a pose of supreme unconcern, calmly reassuring his supporters that “the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Trudeau the Elder was quoting a fragment of a prose poem called “Desiderata,” by the American writer and lawyer Max Ehrmann, who wrote: “(And) whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

It is unlikely that today’s political leaders will be quoting “Desiderata” any time soon. The words convey a certain complacency that none of them can afford to feel as the country heads to a federal election a year from now.

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Trudeau the Younger finds his Liberal universe beginning to wobble after 18 months of relatively smooth unfolding. Stephen Harper, the master of all he surveys from Parliament Hill, is still trying, after almost nine years as prime minister, to figure out what he has to do to get the people to love him — or enough of them to hand him a fourth term. And NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair would find the universe a much more congenial place if he could translate parliamentary performance into points in the opinion polls (and, ultimately, electoral votes).

Meanwhile, in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, where the absurdly long municipal campaign will finally lurch to an end next Monday, nothing has unfolded the way it should, or the way it was meant to, or expected to, unfold. Back in the beginning, a year or so ago, the Toronto universe was poised for a battle royal between the “Ford Nation” with its beloved Rob Ford, the city’s druggie mayor, and just about anybody else.

Ford Nation would deliver perhaps 35 per cent of the popular vote to their populist hero. If most of the remaining vote went to one candidate, the Ford era would be over. That candidate would be Olivia Chow, who was the antithesis of Ford: female, urban, Chinese, progressive (a former NDP MP and widow of Jack Layton). Conventional wisdom had it that Chow would take the old city and enough of the suburbs to defeat Rob Ford handily.

That universe collapsed. Rob Ford got cancer and withdrew from the mayoral campaign (although he is still running for a city council seat). In his place, he substituted his even less charming older brother, Doug, to carry the Ford Nation flag. Meanwhile, a third mayoral candidate appeared — John Tory, a Conservative with an almost unblemished record of electoral failure (the mayoralty in 2003, Ontario provincial election in 2007 and, going back to his backroom days, the 1993 federal election when he ran Kim Campbell’s disastrous campaign against Jean Chrétien’s Liberals).

But Tory is going to win on Monday, for several reasons. He is going to win because he is not a Ford. He is going to win because he is a safe Conservative. He is going to win because there are a lot more Liberals in Toronto than New Democrats or Conservatives. And given a choice between a safe conservative and a socialist, most Liberals will go for the former.

For voters who still worry about such things (and there’s been enough racism in the campaign to make one wonder), he is a WASP through and through. He is not a visible minority, he does not speak English with an accent, and he is not female.

He is known to be a competent and experienced manager. He is no visionary; his ideas don’t always add up. His “SmartTrack” transit policy seems almost as flawed as his 2007 provincial election promise to extend full public funding to faith-based schools.

But maybe Torontonians are not looking for vision this year. Maybe getting rid of the Fords will be enough for now. They can worry about the vision thing the next time the universe unfolds.

Combat could be game changer in next vote

Published Oct. 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Whenever an election appears on the horizon, political strategists attempt to frame a “ballot question” to offer voters a bite-sized synopsis of the key issue, as the strategists see it.

For Conservatives planning next October’s federal campaign, the ballot question has been the economy and the Harper government’s wise management thereof since the crash of 2008. A federal surplus is within reach, the economy is growing again (at least a bit), interest rates are low and a brighter future lies ahead, or so it can be argued. Why risk everything by changing horses now?

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For the opposition parties, the ballot question is a hoary one – time for a change. The New Democrats and Liberals will put different spins on the question, but the bottom line is essentially the same: after nine years, it is time to get rid of the aloof, insensitive prime minister and his arrogant Tories who care only about winning and not about the needs, hopes and dreams of ordinary Canadians.

This is pretty predictable stuff. Now, however, there is a new element – two elements, actually. First, will the war against ISIS and Canada’s involvement be what they call a “game changer?” Will it change the way Canadians look at their political leaders and their parties? Will it change their vote next October?

In one scenario, the air war goes well; ISIS is quickly contained, if not obliterated; and Canada is seen to have made a useful contribution. In this scenario, Prime Minister Harper and his Conservatives accept the credit for sound leadership and roll to victory in October.

In a second scenario – call it the Vietnam syndrome – the air war drags on with no end in sight. ISIS warriors take shelter among the civilian population and it becomes apparent it is going to take allied boots on the ground, including Canadian boots, for an indefinite period. Having bought into the U.S.-led coalition, could Canada realistically back out when the going gets tough?

But would the Canadian electorate accept an extended commitment to a war effort in which there is no evident exit strategy? And what happens if Canadian soldiers are killed or taken prisoner, or held hostage and paraded on internet videos? That would be a worst-case scenario for the Tories and could mean a ticket back to opposition.

This is why all parties are hedging their bets. The Conservatives say they signed on to the air war for six months only – a trial period that seems artificial and unrealistic. How do you fight a war with your eyes glued on the exit? The opposition parties are in a similar dilemma. They say they are opposed to joining the air war, but might change their mind later, depending on how things go. It’s a position built on quicksand, betraying both expediency and lack of commitment.

If ISIS is one potential game changer, Justin Trudeau is another. Chosen Liberal leader 18 months ago, Trudeau has enjoyed an astonishingly easy run to the top of the polls. His thin resume and meager arsenal of policies did not hinder his ascent. He has the Trudeau name – if not the steel-trap mind and icy determination of his father – and he generates genuine excitement among younger voters.

Here is an attractive young leader who wants to be prime minister, who seems impervious to Conservative attack ads, who has been forgiven assorted gaffes over the months, and who – importantly – is not Stephen Harper. What’s not to like?

The answer may have begun to emerge last week. The Commons held a debate on Canadian involvement in the ISIS war, the most important debate in the Commons in many months. It was a time for national leaders to step up. Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair stepped up, leading their parties in the debate. Trudeau did not. He left the heavy lifting to other Liberals, and he made matters worse with sophomoric sexual innuendo about fighter aircraft, an attempt at humour that was inappropriate and unfunny in a serious situation.

If Trudeau wants to lead the nation, he is going to have to prove he has what it takes.

Health system needs federal leadership

Published Oct. 6, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Every once in awhile, politics produces a story that manages to be both profoundly sad, yet instructive. Such is the story of Herb Gray.

Herb — I will call him by his first name because that’s how I knew him in my years in Ottawa — was first elected to the Commons in 1962 and was re-elected 12 times in his Windsor riding. He was there for the introduction of medicare and the Canadian flag, for the entry of Pierre Trudeau on the political scene, and the rise of Stephen Harper. When he retired in 2002, after 40 years on the Hill, he was the longest continuously serving MP in Canadian history.

He was the first Jewish federal cabinet minister, held almost a dozen cabinet posts in Liberal administrations, and served as deputy prime minister under Jean Chrétien. He was named the “Right Honourable” Herb Gray, a designation normally reserved for governors general, prime ministers and chief justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.

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In retirement, he served as chancellor of Carleton University and Canadian co-chair of the International Joint Commission that deals with boundary matters between Canada and the United States. There is a parkway named after him in his hometown of Windsor.

A bit more about Herb. He was not, let us say, the most colourful politician on the Ottawa scene. Charisma was not his thing. Among reporters, he was known, affectionately or despairingly, as Grey Herb. He had a particular ability to render almost any subject impenetrable by smothering it in verbiage — a talent that served him well on occasion in question period. Yet there was more to Grey Herb than met the eye. It turned out he was a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll, especially of the American group Hootie & the Blowfish.

Herb died last April. He was 82 and had suffered from various ailments in his later years. One was Parkinson’s disease, which affected his balance. From time to time he fell, injured himself and required hospitalization.

Just how difficult his life became was revealed last week when his widow, Sharon Sholzberg-Gray, went public in a letter to the Globe and Mail, followed by interviews with the Ottawa Citizen and CBC Radio. The Rt. Hon. Herb Gray, former deputy prime minister of Canada, dean of the Commons, was a victim of the same crisis of hospital wait times that makes life miserable for so many Canadians.

On a number of occasions he was taken by ambulance to hospital in Ottawa, there to wait on a gurney in the emergency department in the hope that a bed would open up. The wait might be 48 hours, or even 72 hours. Herb never complained. He never dreamed of pulling rank to move to the front of the queue. He was proud of medicare and of being a member of the Parliament that created it. “He always thought we had a wonderful health-care system,” his wife said. He would tell people, just think what it was like before medicare.

Like her husband, Sholzberg-Gray would not use her position to obtain preferential treatment. A lawyer, she was president of the Canadian Healthcare Association. Because her husband was a prominent Liberal and a cabinet minister, she was scrupulously non-partisan in her advocacy of publicly funded care.

Now, however, she notes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his nearly nine years as prime minister, has never once met with provincial leaders to discuss the health-care system. This despite the fact that medicare always ranks at or near the top of lists of Canadians’ concerns. The system, Sholzberg-Gray says, needs federal leadership and a transfusion of money to meet the treatment needs of elderly patients, both in hospital and in their own homes — “The real question is: Should frail, elderly people lie behind a curtain for 48 hours? No.”

No one should have to lie behind a curtain for 48 hours. Not Herb Gray. Not any elderly Canadian.

PM should heed Mulroney’s career advice

Published Sept. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

Imagine, if you can, that you are Stephen Harper.

You’ve had quite a career. You’ve gone from being an obscure economist on the political right to the leader of a national political party. You’ve fought four federal elections and won three of them. You’ve been prime minister of Canada for nearly nine years, and you love the job. There is nothing you would rather be.

The storm cloud on your horizon is a general election that must be held by next October. The polling gods are not smiling on you. They suggest you have lost a quarter of your electoral support since the 2011 election, leaving your Conservative party far behind the Liberals and barely ahead of the New Democrats. In an election today, you would be demolished in Atlantic Canada, decimated in the Greater Toronto Area and wiped out in Waterloo Region, for example.

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For reasons not entirely clear to you or your close advisers, you have been unable to win the hearts of the Canadian people.

What can you do? Well, you are not very good at taking outside advice (and that’s an understatement), but you could do worse that take some that was offered earlier this month by Brian Mulroney. Everyone knows you have issues with Mulroney and he with you. But you have to admit he has made a quite remarkable transition from polarizing prime minister and national embarrassment to elder statesman. “Lyin’ Brian” has become “Brian the Wise.”

In a CTV interview marking the 30th anniversary of his first landslide election, Mulroney offered these bits of wisdom.

To start with, treat the opposition leaders with some respect. Mulroney called NDP leader Thomas Mulcair “the best opposition leader since John Diefenbaker.” As to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau: “He’s a young man, attractive, elected two or three times to the House, attractive wife, beautiful kids — this is a potent package. …You’d have to be foolish to sit back and not recognize if somebody’s leading in the polls 14 months in a row, this is not a fluke.”

And don’t heed those who say Trudeau has no program: “His program is that he’s not Stephen Harper.”

Stop picking fights with the Supreme Court: “You don’t get into a slagging contest with the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, even if you thought that he or she was wrong. You don’t do that.”

Get your foreign policy in order: “When Canada, for the first time in our history, loses a vote at the United Nations to become a member of the Security Council … to Portugal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, you should look in the mirror and say: ‘Houston, I think we have a problem.’”

Mulroney said Canada’s foreign policy should not be one-sided: “(It) has to be enveloped in a broader and more generous sweep that takes in Canadian traditions and Canadian history in a much more viable way. We’re in the big leagues … so we have to conduct ourselves in that way. We can’t be out-riders.”

In particular, Harper needs to nurture Ottawa’s relationship with Washington and his personal relationship with President Barack Obama. Close ties matter: “If you can’t do that, you don’t have much clout internationally. The relationship with the United States is something the prime minister alone has to nurture the same way he would tend to the most delicate flowers in a garden. It’s that important.”

Recognize that a “pristine environment” is important to the middle class. The prime minister needs to get personally involved in the issue, make the environment a top government priority and commit the necessary funds.

Mulroney was prime minister for nine years, just like Harper. In the end, he overstayed his welcome and his Tories went down to crushing defeat in the 1993 election. If he has any retirement advice for Harper, he did not offer it in the television interview. That would have been fascinating.

Harper keeping his options open

Published Sept. 22, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Region Record.

The politicians and the pundits seem to be agreed. Like it or not, the campaign for the next federal federal election has already begun. True, the actual election is not supposed to happen until Oct. 19, 2015, roughly 390 days down the road, but that’s irrelevant. It was clear when MPs returned from their long summer recess that the business of the coming 13 months will have much less to do with legislating and governing than it will with electioneering.

Normally, with Parliament about to resume, as it did last Monday, the prime minister would assemble the government caucus on Parliament Hill to brief his MPs and senators with earnest words about the parliamentary timetable. This time, however, the Conservatives abandoned their caucus room for a rented hall in downtown Ottawa where they could whoop and holler in what looked like a cross between an old-time revival meeting and a high school pep rally. Their head cheerleader (aka prime minister) strode the stage, whipping his energized troops into what might be described as a bit of an excited lather.
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The election excitement doesn’t mean, as some pundits suspect, that the Conservatives are plotting to call an election earlier than next October; that’s possible but, barring a dramatic turnaround in the polls, the odds are heavily against it. It also doesn’t mean that there is something happening on the leadership front – either that Harper is preparing to leave politics or, alternatively, that he has made up his mind to fight the election and carry on when it is over.

My sense is that Harper, a cautious man, is keeping all his options open – maybe an early election, maybe not; maybe a leadership convention, maybe not. He knows he has a leadership window that, although it is narrowing, will remain open until late February or early March next year. If he resigns by then, there will be time for a hurried but not-too frantic transition: a convention in late May or early June, followed by a short parliamentary session in which the new prime minister could establish himself or herself, followed by the election on schedule in October.

There is no indication, however, that Harper will go that route. Whipping the troops into election mode does not commit him to leading the party into his fifth election. But it serves as an opening gambit to see if he can move the polls and voters, especially in Ontario, away from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and back to the Tories.

That’s not going to be easy. To do it, he is going to have to change the so-called “ballot question.” The Conservatives want the ballot question to be the economy and their success in managing it by finally turning years of deficit into a surplus. But, as they are acutely aware, the ballot question they would face in an election today has little to do with the economy. It is all about Stephen Harper himself. As people tell pollsters, they are tired of him. They don’t like him. He bores them. They just want a change of leadership.

This is not a new phenomenon.  It happened to Pierre Trudeau and to Brian Mulroney.

By election time next year, Harper will have been in power for virtually a decade. In the internet age, a decade is an eternity. If the desire for change is strong enough, the presumed deficiencies of the other national leaders won’t save Harper. People will vote for whichever party and leader they think offers the best chance of getting rid of Harper and his Tory government.

It’s a fascinating situation. You would think that Harper would have to change, to re-invent himself. But how would he do that? He is not a political chameleon. He cannot make himself as charismatic as Trudeau or as passionate as Thomas Mulcair. Like his political soulmate, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Harper is not for turning or changing. He is what he is, for better or worse.

Western leaders struggle with crises

Published Sept. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are times when one wonders why any sane person would want to be the leader of a nation committed to democratic values. Last week was one such time as Western leaders struggled to navigate their way through at least a trio of crises.

One, of course, was the confrontation with the fanatics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, who are waging war in their own repugnant way – by beheading their captives and doing it on video for the world to see. On Saturday, British aid worker David Haines became the third victim in recent weeks, following the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. “An act of pure evil,” British Prime Minister David Cameron called the Haines assassination.

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There will be more beheadings – ISIS has already served notice of that – leaving world leaders appearing impotent as they confront an enemy that does not observe any acknowledged practices of warfare. ISIS does not negotiate, although it will accept blood money, as it did when the weak-kneed government of France paid to ransom French captives. It does not hesitate to kill its victims, fellow Muslims as well as foreign “infidels,” in the most gruesome manner possible. It does not care what damage it does to the Islamic movement in the world.

It does not worry about retaliation from horrified Western leaders. It knows Western intelligence gathering is weak, probably as weak as it was back in 2003 when George W. Bush led the United States into war against Saddam Hussein on the strength of erroneous intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. ISIS even welcomes retaliation, because for those twisted fanatics retaliation serves to validate their cause and to attract recruit disaffected and misguided youths in the U.S., Britain and Canada, too, to join their struggle.

Of course, ISIS can be stopped. According to Western estimates – which may or may not be accurate – there are only about 30,000 militants in ISIS. That doesn’t seem like very many for the combined forces of the Western allies and sympathetic Arab countries to dispose of. But the movement feeds on publicity and its numbers are growing. They are not soldiers. They are terrorists who are fighting on their own territory with the support and protection of the Sunni population.

They cannot be bombed out of existence without causing incalculable civilian casualties. The only way, as President Barack Obama and other leaders must surely suspect, is with boots on the ground, by sending in soldiers in overwhelming numbers to capture or kill the terrorists. But no one wants another Iraq war. Everyone knows it could drag on for years, as Iraq and Afghanistan did, and might, in the end, solve nothing. And there’s a real risk that ISIS, following the example of Al-Qaeda, would export its murderous ways to the civilian populations in other parts of the world, including Canada.

As if ISIS were not enough crisis enough, political leaders have to deal with two others. One is the Ebola epidemic or pandemic sweeping through several countries in West Africa. There are not enough doctors, nurses, hospitals and medical supplies to contain the virus, let alone the vaccines to eradicate it. Eighty per cent of the people who contract Ebola die from it. Unless it can be stopped, it seems inevitable that it will be carried one way or another to Europe and North America.

The third crisis is posed by Vladimir Putin who seems intent on rebuilding the old Soviet empire, starting with Ukraine. NATO countries will try sanctions and threats, but in the end the world might be looking at another Cold War arms race.

Of all leaders, Britain’s David Cameron has the most worries. His biggest one is this week’s referendum on independence for Scotland. If he loses, which is a distinct possibility, his coalition government may not be around long enough to have to worry about ISIS, Ebola or Putin.

If you’re a betting person, here are some safe bets

Published Sept. 8, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are precious few safe bets in politics these days, but here are a few.

Safe bet number one: Stephen Harper will not win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, for which he is being nominated by his admirers in B’Nai Brith Canada, the group that earlier gave the prime minister its Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism. It didn’t take long, just a few hours, for an online petition to spring up demanding that the Norwegian Nobel Committee reject Harper’s nomination; overnight it attracted 13,000 signatures. Elsewhere, the reaction ranged from outrage (among Palestinian Canadians) to laughter (among most non-Conservatives).

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Safe bet number two: Andrea Horwath will not be the NDP leader when the next Ontario election rolls around in four years’ time. She faces a crucial NDP provincial council meeting this coming weekend – followed, if she survives that meeting, by a formal leadership review in November.

The council will want to know why she forfeited the influence the NDP had enjoyed with the then minority Liberal government by opposing its budget, which was loaded with goodies for the NDP. By rejecting the budget, Horwath precipitated a June election she could not win. She ran a poorly prepared and executed campaign. She alienated the party’s traditional labour base and many of the NDP rank and file with policies that moved the party to the right of the Liberals. The new head of the Canadian Labour Congress described her as a “coward.”

When the dust settled, Kathleen Wynne had a majority government and the NDP was still in third place – now cloutless and bitter. “Andrea is fighting for her life,” a longtime party worker told the Toronto Star. “Among a very large section of the activist base there is little more than comptempt for her.” Ouch!

Safe bet number three: Rob Ford will not be mayor of Toronto for 14 more years, as he says he intends to be. That would take him up to his 60th birthday.

Of course, nothing is “safe” when dealing with the unpredictable Ford. A few months ago, before entering rehab, most people – me included – would have bet against his reelection for a second four-year term. Now the race has changed. He is in second place, the underdog to front-runner John Tory, and underdog is where the populist mayor likes to be. I still don’t think Ford can win again in October, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

But 14 years? Nah, it couldn’t happen. Could it? Make it a small bet against.

But back to Stephen Harper and the Nobel Peace Prize. His supporters are certainly gung-ho, his detractors not so much. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says Hanna Kawas, the head of the Canadian Palestine Association in Vancouver. “It’s outrageous.”

But Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’Nai Brith, harbours no doubts. He praises Harper’s international leadership and the “moral clarity” he brings to issues of good and evil. “More than any other individual, he has consistently spoken out with resolve regarding the safety of people under threat – such as opposing Russian aggression and annexation of Ukrainian territory – and has worked to ensure that other world leaders truly understand the threat of Islamic terrorism facing us today.”

That’s a much larger and more influential role than most other leaders would concede to Harper. His support of Israel is unconditional and, I think, genuine. It is also good politics at home. But by being so one-sided, it doesn’t allow for Canada to play any useful role in the delicate diplomacy of the Middle East.

When it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Harper roars from the sidelines and shakes his fist at Vladimir Putin. He will do anything for Ukraine, so long as the cost of any Canadian contribution does not jeopordize his pursuit of a balanced budget in time for the federal election in October next year. Unfortunately, deficit elimination is not one of the criteria for a Nobel Prize. Sorry, sir.

Rob Ford’s campaign gains momentum

Published Sept. 2, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

It is absurd.

Nearly four years ago, a suburban councillor by the name of Rob Ford, was elected mayor of Toronto. City politics had never seen a candidate quite like him. He presented himself as a right-wing populist, the leader of something he called “Ford Nation.” He preached less government and lower taxes. He pledged to stop the “gravy train” at City Hall and to build subways to the suburbs. That was about it. Facing a weak field, he won the chain of office.

The intervening four years have been a disaster. Far from being a charismatic defender of the downtrodden, Ford proved to be a loathsome individual. There were drugs, booze, outrageous public behaviour, self-serving lies, criminal associates, obscene comments about women, including female colleagues on City Council, plus various conflicts of interest – the list goes on. He was a disgrace. He made Toronto a joke on the comedy circuit at home and in the United States.

Yet by some strange alchemy this unspeakable person stands a very good chance of being reelected mayor in October. Who would have thought it possible?

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Last week a Forum Research poll put Ford in second place, closing in on the current leader, John Tory, and pulling away from the third candidate (and early favourite), Olivia Chow. In a sample of 1,945 Torontonians, Tory had 34 per cent, Ford 31 and Chow 23.

True, it was an automated phone survey – in other words, a “robopoll” – but it may not be a rogue poll. Its results are roughly consistent with the unpublished findings of the candidates’ internal surveys. The Chow campaign is stalled. Tory is flagging. Only Ford has momentum.

How did this happen? It has been an impossibly long campaign – eight months so far with almost two to go before Oct. 27. Chow was the early leader, the most outspoken critic of the mayor and, as a left-wing populist, she tapped into some of the same anti-establishment sentiment as Ford, while offering a very different set of progressive policies. Ford is a Conservative, Chow a New Democrat (and former MP). The choice between left and right, between downtown (Chow) and suburbs (Ford) seemed clear.

Enter John Tory. He’s a conventional Conservative, a former provincial leader who led his party to defeat in the 2007 Ontario election. For municipal voters who wanted someone conservative without getting Rob Ford, Tory was their man. Where Ford is a populist, Tory is pure establishment. Where Ford is outrageous, Tory is bland to the point of boring. He seems to be running because he wants to be elected to something, not because he has a grand design for Toronto.

At the end of the spring, Chow had the lead by five or six percentage points. She seemed to represent the face of the new Toronto – young, ethnic and open to change and challenge. As Tory slipped into second place, he became the face of the old Toronto – greying, WASP and risk-adverse. And it looked as though Ford was out of the running.

At the start of May, Ford entered rehab for his alcohol and drug issues. When he emerged two months later, the race changed. Former Ford supporters, who, weary of the City Hall soap opera, had moved to Chow and Tory, now moved back. Chow’s lead became a deficit. Tory could not get any traction.

Polling indicates that women voters, in particular, were disposed to give Rob Ford a second chance. He had admitted his sins and rehabilitated himself (or so he claimed). Who would refuse to forgive a repentant sinner?

I think this forgiveness accounts for some of his campaign revival. Sheer name recognition contributes the rest. In municipal politics where there are no parties or leaders to guide voters’ decision making, name recognition can be everything. Rob Ford may be a dreadful mayor, but he is a genuine celebrity, mobbed wherever he goes. When you are a big enough star, a little notoriety simply adds spice.

Voters growing tired of the Harper Tories

Published Aug. 25, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

For lack of a better term, let’s call it “voter fatigue.” Voter fatigue is what sets in when the public simply grows tired of the politicians who are running their lives. They may not be especially angry at the people in power. It’s more a matter of being weary — and bored — of hearing the same self-serving arguments, the same empty platitudes, the same threadbare rationalizations over and over from the same political mouths.

That’s when voters start telling one another (and they tell pollsters, too) that “enough is enough.” I think we are at that point in federal politics today. As I read the opinion polls, people are not so much outraged by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives as they are tired of them. Some of this was reflected in the Angus Reid Global survey mentioned in last week’s column. Asked to describe Harper in one word, 26 per cent of the 1,502 Canadians polled chose “boring,” while 37 per cent said “arrogant.”

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These responses have less to do with the merits of the government’s policies than they do with the tone that the administration projects. Are they sensitive to the people’s concerns? Do they put the public interest ahead of their own political interest? Are they compassionate when compassion is called for, as with Canada’s veterans? Or do they treat the vets as just another special interest group to be shoved aside? Do they really care about the treatment of aboriginals? Are they really interested in protecting the environment?

The Harper government does not fare well when faced with questions like these. It comes across as being more concerned with its own well-being than with the interests of the population as a whole. After 8½ years in power, it has lost sight of why it wanted to get elected in the first place.

We have been there before. To cite one example, it happened to Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney at the same stage in his reign. He was elected in 1984 and re-elected in 1988. By 1992, the public had had enough. He might have weathered the controversies over free trade and the goods and services tax, but it was the Mulroney style (remember “Lyin’ Brian?”), the arrogance and the sense of entitlement of a party that had been in power too long that did them in. As the opinion polls cratered, Mulroney took his leave but it was too late; the Tories were annihilated in 1993 under the leadership of Kim Campbell. Thus began the Jean Chrétien Liberal era.

I am not suggesting a catastrophe of such magnitude awaits the Harper (or post-Harper) Conservatives in 2015. But when the public takes it into its head that enough is enough, it will take more than a portfolio of shiny new polities, a major retooling of the cabinet, or maybe even a new leader, to right the ship.

At the moment, the Tory ship is sinking, and has been for the past year. An EKOS poll this month put the Harper party 13 points behind the Liberals (25.6 per cent to 38.7) and barely ahead of the New Democrats (23.4 per cent). A Forum Research poll had it closer — a nine-point lead for the Liberals (41-32).

Either way, the numbers suggest a Liberal government. The Liberals are talking about winning 170 seats, enough for a bare majority of the 338 seats in the enlarged House of Commons. They aren’t there yet and may not get there; the NDP has no intention of rolling over. If the Liberals do form a government, it won’t be because they dazzled the country with irresistible policies or because Justin Trudeau set the woods afire with his personal magnetism.

If they win, it will because the Harper Tories got old, out of touch and took the keys to 24 Sussex for granted. It will be because voters, having concluded “enough is enough,” made the next short step to “time for a change.”

Is Harper influenced by polls?

Published Aug. 18, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Pollsters are forever serving up useless information. But sometimes they come up with findings that, while devoid of practical value, are sort of interesting nonetheless.

For example, polling companies report periodically on the number of people who believe that Elvis is still alive. Why they ask this, I don’t know, but they do. A few years ago, the number stood consistently at 12 per cent to 13 per cent of adult Americans. While more recent polls put the figure at “only” 8 per cent, it means that roughly 16 million (delusional) Americans believe the King is still with us. (For the record, Elvis left the building in August 1977, or so we are told.)

In the category of useless but marginally interesting information, I would put a new poll by the firm Angus Reid Global, which asked 1,502 Canadians to choose adjectives to express what they thought of a selection of national leaders. Not surprisingly, United States President Barack Obama, who always polls better north of the border than south of it, did very well. Forty-six per cent of Canadians said he was “influential,” 33 per cent chose “compassionate,” 32 per cent “inspiring.” 29 per cent “credible,” and so on. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Canadians can’t vote in the mid-term elections in November.
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Also not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin fared badly. To 54 per cent of Canadians, he is “arrogant,” “corrupt” (52 per cent), “dishonest” (45 per cent), and “secretive” (41 per cent).

And how is Stephen Harper viewed by his own countrymen? Surprisingly (or perhaps not), he stands closer to Putin than to Obama. In terms of being “secretive,” he is right there with Putin, at 39 per cent to the Russian president’s 41. In terms of being “arrogant,” Harper trails Putin 37-54. Among other descriptions, Harper is seen as “dishonest” (31 per cent) and “boring” (26 per cent).

Who cares about any of this? Probably not Obama. Personal popularity is not a big concern when he is constitutionally precluded from seeking a third term. Certainly not Putin. He doesn’t need to court public support at home let alone among detractors like Canadians.

But Harper may care. His Conservatives face a federal general election in October 2015, and if Harper decides to seek a fourth term as prime minister, he will have to be concerned about the hardening negative perception that Canadians have of him and his leadership. According to the poll, positive impressions are much weaker than the negative ones. Only 19 per cent say they see him as a “strong” leader, 18 per cent say he is “influential,” 17 per cent “credible” and 13 per cent “honest.”

So here is the dilemma, if you happen to be Stephen Harper. By election time, you will have been Tory leader for 12 years; you will have fought four national elections (and won three of them); and you will have been prime minister for nine long years. The negatives revealed in the Angus Reid poll are not news to you. You have never gone out of your way to make yourself lovable, or even very interesting, to Canadians. Today your party trails so badly behind the Liberals that pundits are starting to speculate that the Conservatives could finish third behind both the Liberals and the NDP.

But if you want to win again, how do you persuade the public that its perception of you is wrong? How do you convince them that you are, in fact, what they believe you are not? How do you convince them that you are open, honest and compassionate? How do you, after all these years, compete with the freshness and vigour of a Justin Trudeau? Or can you bring yourself to you fold your tent and let your party move on without you?

In the end, maybe none of this matters. A poll is just a poll after all. This one may prove to be useless, but it is sort of interesting all the same.