Harper is finally getting his wish — a war

Published March 30, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Back in the spring of 2003, in the waning days of his prime ministry, Jean Chrétien announced the decision for which he will be long remembered. Canada, he told a tumultuous House of Commons, would be not joining the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” in its war against Iraq.

There are times in politics when a decision not to take a certain step is tougher, yet wiser, than a decision to take that step. In March 2003, Chrétien was under pressure both from U.S. president George W. Bush and from Stephen Harper, the newly minted leader of the opposition in Ottawa, to commit Canadian forces to the invasion of Iraq. If Chrétien had succumbed to their pressure, Canada would have been locked into an unwinnable war that in the end dragged on for eight years, claiming the lives of 4,491 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians. Continue reading

Chrétien said no to Bush because the United States had been unable to persuade the UN Security Council to endorse military action. There was no evidence to support the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Canada, Chrétien said, would honour military commitments to its allies in the then two-year-old war in Afghanistan, but it was going to stay out of Iraq,

There’s not much doubt that if Harper had been prime minister in 2003, and particularly if he had a majority government, Canada would have followed the United States into Iraq. That would have been a huge mistake, as Harper finally and grudgingly admitted five years later, during a leaders’ debate in the 2008 election campaign. By this time, he was prime minister, and as the Green party leader declared in that debate: “We’re only not sending anyone to Iraq because you weren’t prime minister at the time (in 2003).”

So now it is 2015. Harper has a majority government, and Canada has followed the United States into war against ISIL with a bombing campaign in Iraq. Now the Harper government intends to extend its bombing to ISIL targets in Syria.

The situations are different, of course. Saddam Hussein was a brutal despot who deserved to be removed from power. He had thoroughly annoyed the United States, but did not directly threaten Canadian interests. ISIL is a monster of a different order. It is a movement of murderous fanatics who do not hesitate to wreak violence abroad as well as at home. Any polls I’ve seen suggest strong public support for the war against ISIL.

(It’s worth noting that the United Kingdom, which was alongside the U.S. in the “coalition of the willing” a decade ago, and which is part of the current anti-ISIL bombing in Iraq, is not going into Syria. The Cameron coalition government could not win the support of the British Parliament for a Syrian campaign. That’s not an obstacle Harper faces.)

Harper is able to do in 2015 what he wished he could do in 2003. He is going to war with no idea of how long it may last (longer than shorter one suspects) and with no assurance that Canada will be able to avoid committing boots on the ground somewhere down the road. And the government has no exit strategy to turn to if the war proves to be unwinnable.

Last week’s Commons debate produced plenty of partisanship and posturing, but a dearth of clear thinking about the degree of the ISIL threat, the actual need for Canadian military involvement, and the anticipated effectiveness of that involvement.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect clear thinking when the country is on the road to an election. Harper needs this war. Back in 2003, he wanted to push the Chrétien Liberals into the Iraq War. Now that he is in power he doesn’t need any pushing. Today, he is jumping of his own volition without knowing where he and the country may land.

Canada needs a leader with a bold vision

Published Mar. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As Canada lurches unsteadily toward a general election, something important is missing. That “something” is a sense of national purpose – or vision – from any of the three major parties. How do the Conservatives, the New Democrats or the Liberals envisage the future of the country they aspire to lead for (let us say) the next decade or beyond?

We know, broadly, where they are coming from. But do they have a roadmap? How do they see the Canada of 2025 or 2040? Will we still be a moderately liberal society, committed to equality of treatment and opportunity for all citizens? Will we still welcome immigrants? Will we still embrace the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (or will we let the charter be reduced to a relic of a bygone era)? Will we still respect the supremacy of Parliament and the Supreme Court? And looking beyond Canada’s borders, will we be content to play a modest, if useful, role in a world dominated by bigger powers and their agendas? Continue reading

Of course, all three parties are dedicated (or say they are) to the service of the “middle class,” however they define it. But accommodating the middle class does not a vision make. It’s as though the leaders of the parties are so busy struggling with minutiae of the present (what should Muslim women wear on their heads; should rural dwellers be encouraged to keep guns by their beds; is income-splitting a good or bad idea) that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They become preoccupied with politics on the margins, slicing and dicing the electorate into interest groups where they hope to gain electoral advantage.

Elections should be an opportunity, for bold thinking, for big ideas. You can say what you will about John Diefenbaker, but he was not afraid to proclaim his vision (he even called it a vision) for Canada, based on northern development. So many Canadians embraced his vision that his Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958. A decade later, Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals back to a majority with his vision of a Just Society.

Judging from the polls, Canadians are confused. They have elected Stephen Harper three times, but they still don’t love him or trust him very much; his poll numbers reflect that. The people like Thomas Mulcair, as long as he is leading the opposition. They would like to like Justin Trudeau, and they told pollsters that for two years; now they are not so sure.

As of early last week, the online poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com had the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat. Later in the week, however, a new poll by EKOS Research showed an apparent four-point shift from the Tories to the Liberals, putting the Trudeau party ahead of the Harper party by 32 per cent to 30, with the NDP holding at 21.

Frank Graves, the head of EKOS, suggested the movement, which he found significant, could partly be blowback over Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill. “The more likely explanation, however, is that the security and culture narrative is beginning to lose strength as the threat of a stagnant and eroding economy takes root in voters’ minds,” Graves reported.

The federal budget is due in the next month. But if the economy is struggling – and if the fear card is losing its potency – the Conservatives will be in trouble this spring.

Trouble for the government generally spells opportunity for the opposition. But for which opposition party? Talk of an NDP-Liberal coalition is very much in the wind. It may be the moment for a bold idea – say, a joint announcement by Mulcair and Trudeau that if (as seems likely) no party wins a majority of the 338 seats, their two parties have agreed to join forces to replace the Conservatives.

A risky idea and maybe dangerous, but its very boldness would make for an exciting election.

Terror bill creates havoc in Harperland

Published Mar. 16, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3

With the House of Commons in recess this week for yet another mid-session breather, it is a perfect moment for everyone to step back, take a deep breath, and bring some calm to the debate over Bill C-51. To leash the dogs of war, as it were.

This could have been a civil debate. If the government felt it needed to top up police powers to deal with terrorism, it could have introduced a modest measure to that end, explaining to Parliament why additional powers were needed, what precisely those powers would be, whether they would be temporary or permanent, and what controls would be put in place to ensure the police did not abuse their new powers. And the Conservatives could have agreed to accept reasonable amendments from the opposition.

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Parliament, I think, would have passed such a bill fairly quickly, assuming it represented an honest attempt to strike a balance between public safety and the protection of individual rights. The problem with the Harper government – or, perhaps more accurately, one of its problems – is that it cannot resist excess.

A measure that was introduced in response to the murders of two soldiers by lone-wolf assassins in unrelated incidents in Ottawa and Quebec, somehow escalated into a holy war against the jihadis of international Islam, then, courtesy of the personal intervention of the prime minister, branched into an attack on the dress code of Muslim women.

Why should the prime minister waste time worrying about what Muslim women choose to wear? The niqab or hajib have about as much (or little) to do with good governance and public safety as the ridiculous-looking Stetsons that Harper wears at the Calgary Stampede. In a free society, even prime ministers are permitted to make their own sartorial decisions.

It took Stephen Blaney, minister of the Orwellian-sounding department of public safety, to crank the fear factor up a nasty notch. It’s not just women with scarves on their heads that Canadians need to fear. There are “jihadist terrorists,” he assured a parliamentary committee, who have declared war on Canada “simply because these terrorists hate our society and they hate our values.”

How do we prevent them? Well, we start by making the “promotion of terrorism” a criminal offence. This, it seems, may mean limiting freedom of speech in Canada. “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words,” Blaney explained, sort of.

From jihadis to head scarves to our hateful values to the Holocaust – if it weren’t so serious, it might be funny, more Gilbert and Sullivan than George Orwell. But it’s serious because the Conservatives seem actually to believe this nonsense.

They believe it deeply enough to ram through Bill C-51, cutting off debate at every stage, as they rush to give the security forces powers they probably don’t need to deal with a threat that looms large in Conservative imaginations, and rejecting all opposition attempts to improve the bill with amendments to provide oversight of the police powers.

In the process, they are prepared to risk stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, thereby alienating some of the minority communities that they – Jason Kenney, in particular – worked so hard to woo in the 2011 election.

If the Conservatives seem to be panicking, it is because they see the headlight of the next election racing down the track at them. I think the Tories miscalculated. They thought playing the “fear card” would have brought them to a sweet spot in the polls by now, a spot where they would enjoy a tidy lead over the Liberals and NDP. Instead they are deadlocked with the Liberals with the New Democrats not too far behind.

Right now, a Liberal-NDP coalition or cooperative government is as good a bet as another Conservative government. Bill C-51 is simply creating havoc in Harperland. It’s time to step back.

 

Is opportunity knocking at Trudeau’s door?

Published Mar. 9, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Justin Trudeau has no policies.

Justin Trudeau is not ready for prime time. That is to say, he is too young, too inexperienced politically, and just too darned flighty to be taken seriously as a potential prime minister.

Trudeau has been hearing those allegations for months, mainly from the lavishly funded attack machine of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, but also from ordinary voters who are attracted to the man but are apprehensive about his qualifications for high office. Continue reading

Of the two sets of allegations, the paucity of policy is the easiest for Liberals to deal with. They don’t know when the election will be, but they do know that if they put their major policies in the window too soon, they will simply attract fire from the Conservatives. So they are proceeding at a deliberate space, advancing concepts more than specifics. In Liberal strategy, details can come later.

For example, speaking at his party’s policy conference in late February, Trudeau sketched a reasonable picture of the economic direction a Liberal government would take. Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom (who happens to be an economist as well as a journalist) described it this way: “This is Trudeau’s formula for the economy: Keep resources moving; embrace free trade; don’t raise taxes; spend any surplus on education and useful infrastructure.” As Walkom concluded: “It may or may not be correct. But it is pretty clear.”

The second set of allegations, concerning Trudeau’s lack of experience, are harder to deal with. By conventional political measure, his early resume is thin. He has two university degrees (and dropped out of a couple of other academic programs), taught high school, lobbied on behalf of environmental causes, and chaired the national youth service program, Katimavik.

He could have ridden on his name to an easy seat in Parliament. Instead, he challenged an established Bloc Québécois MP in the Montreal riding of Papineau and beat him in the 2008 general election. Now he has been in Parliament for more than six years and leader of his party for two. He is 43.

There are no established prerequisites for political leadership. When his father Pierre entered the Liberal leadership race in 1968, his detractors – many of them in the Liberal caucus and party – argued he wasn’t truly a Liberal and had never had a real job. He was a lawyer by schooling. a university teacher and sometime journalist – none of which added up to “real” work in the skeptics’ minds – before he became an MP, parliamentary secretary and justice minister, all in less than three years as his career was fast-tracked by Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

When he became prime minister, at age 48, he was known to most Canadians as an intriguing “swinger” – a bachelor who loved fast cars and beautiful women – and as the unconventional minister who had declared that the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation.

In comparison to his father, Justin seems conventional, although perhaps not as staid as Stephen Harper, another politician with a skinny early resume. Harper came on the national scene out of the Reform Party in Alberta. A transplanted Ontarian with a degree in economics, he was a policy wonk and an admirer of American Republicanism. He worked with right-wing causes and ran the lobby group, the National Citizens Coalition. If anyone had examined Harper’s credentials back in March 2004, when he became leader of the reconstituted Conservative party, they would not have bet more than a dime on his chances of beating the mighty Liberals. He was not ready for prime time.

Yet two years later he was prime minister – at age 46. He’s won three elections and is on his way to becoming one of Canada’s longer-serving PMs.

The morale in all this: credentials are dandy and resumes are lovely, but opportunity is what turns mere leaders into prime ministers. It worked for Harper and Pierre Trudeau. It might work for Justin, too.

Mr. PM, please think twice about five debates

Published Mar. 2, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper

24 Sussex Drive

Ottawa, Ontario

My very dear Prime Minister:

I am writing to you again as a steadfast admirer of your inspired leadership, your splendid cabinet and your exceptional caucus. Sir, be assured Canada has never been so well served.

Permit me to begin by apologizing for intruding on your solitude this week. With Parliament in recess, you are freed from the aggravations of recent weeks. You don’t have to deal this week with that troublesome Eve Adams person who wouldn’t go away even after you threw her under the bus; with Thomas Mulcair and his motley band of jihadi sympathizers who refuse to recognize that the way to protect democracy is to give more unsupervised power to security agencies; or with all those do-gooders who think you should care enough about 1,200 missing aboriginal women to order a public inquiry into their disappearances. Continue reading

Don’t they realize you are too busy for such distractions? You are our prime minister. You have a government to run, a deficit to slay, and an election to win.

It is in this last connection, the election, that I am writing today. I fear you may have a quisling or two in your party. I came to this conclusion when I read a leaked story on the front page of the Toronto Star that quoted Conservative “insiders” and “strategists” – “speaking on condition of anonymity” (of course) – as saying that your party is considering a plan to hold no fewer than five leader debates in this year’s election campaign. Not the usual two (one English and one French) but five (one for each region of the country).

Five!

According to your anonymous insiders and strategists, five debates would give you five chances to trip up Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, opportunities to demonstrate to voters in every region just how ill-prepared he is for your high office. Canadians would see young Trudeau for what he is: a callow twerp who thinks he can be prime minister just because his daddy was.

Don’t do it, Prime Minister, I beg you. Please consider my three reasons. First, debates are inherently risky because they put all leaders on a level playing field; the advantage of incumbency, which you enjoy in the Commons, is lost in a TV debate. Voters might actually see your opponents as potential, even credible, candidates for prime minister.

Second, beware Mulcair. With respect, Prime Minister, you are not the world’s most spellbinding debater. You are pretty good at slagging your critics in Question Period, but in TV debates, the goal is to persuade audiences, not to abuse the other chaps. Meanness and nastiness don’t win over voters. Sincerity does. As a debater, you can’t hold a candle to Mulcair. He’s one of the best Parliament has seen in decades, in both official languages. I don’t know anyone who would want to go against him five times.

Third, don’t underestimate Justin Trudeau. Now that his honeymoon fling with the pollsters is over, people are inclined to under-rate him. Yes, he lacks your experience. Yes, he makes stupid mistakes. But he has done a good job of putting the Liberals back on a firm financial footing. He has attracted a cadre of strong candidates. And he projects a quality that not all leaders can claim. That’s likeability. When voters meet him or hear him, they like him. This is particularly true among young people, but he attracts older ones as well.

When he debates on television, audiences may not remember much of what he actually says, but they will come away with an impression – like or dislike. Chances are the impression will be more positive than negative. It was like that with Ronald Reagan in the United States; his likeability was his greatest (some might say, only) asset. And he was a pretty successful politician.

So please be careful, Prime Minister. You are too important to lose.

Your faithful lickspittle,

etc., etc.

Anti-terrorism bill shows bad judgment

Published on Feb. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in the olden days, as the storybooks might say, societies venerated their elders. They respected their experience and wisdom. They looked to those who had been there and done that to give guidance to their community or nation on the issues of the here and now.

That’s not so much the case these days. We live in a time – not solely in Ottawa, although it is pronounced there – when history does not register on the Richter scale of the present, where the lessons of the past are routinely ignored.  Columnist Allan Fotheringham once described Stephen Harper’s Ottawa as a capital run by ”kids in short pants” – young ideologues who have no appreciation of anything that went on before they got off the bus from wherever and assumed  positions of influence in the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet. Continue reading

Because they have no sense of the past, they do not understand the present. Everything is political. They do not see the difference between principle and partisan strategy or between carefully considered policies and short-term tactics.

This brings us, albeit circuitously, to Bill C-51, the Harper government’s anti-terrorism bill, a thoroughly bad piece of legislation. Although the kids in short pants may not be aware, or care, we have been there before – in 1970 at the time of the FLQ and the War Measures Act and in 2001 following 9/11.

What we learned, or should have learned, from those experiences is that our security services, principally CSIS and the RCMP, have ample existing powers under the Criminal Code and other statutes to deal with domestic terrorism and security. They don’t need more weapons. What they need is more resources – money and manpower – to be able to do their job in dangerous times.

A second point. This being a democracy, any increase in police powers, if deemed necessary to calm a nervous public, must be balanced by an increase in legislative or judicial oversight to make very sure the new powers are not abused.

A remarkable thing happened last week. Four former prime ministers, all of them experienced in national security matters, wrote an open letter to the Globe and Mail, to address the oversight issue. Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and John Turner (three Liberals and one Conservative) wrote the letter, which was co-signed by 18 other elders (including retired judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, ministers of justice and public safety and solicitors general).

Essentially, their message was to slow down; don’t hand out new powers to infiltrate and disrupt what may only seem to be suspicious activities unless and until a “strong and robust accountability regime” is in place to make sure security agencies exercise their powers lawfully. Citing the Maher Arar case, they wrote,  “Experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security.”

One of the co-signers of the letter was Roy Romanow, the former premier and attorney general of Saskatchewan, who – with former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent – had written an open letter a few days earlier on the same subject. They went further than the four prime ministers.

They called on Harper to withdraw Bill C-51 –  “If it is not withdrawn, Parliament should vote it down. Possibly, then, a more limited and focused statute would be worth debating.” And this: “The exercise of security powers must be made subject to review by an open, publicly observed review process.”  

This is scary stuff, handing the police powers they have never had in peacetime without any transparency, without an effective means of ensuring they do not overstep.

The prime minister has shown no inclination to amend the bill. The chances of him withdrawing it are approximately nil. He has too much riding on it, including his re-election.

The experience of elders, those who have actually been there, counts for nothing in Harper’s Ottawa. He is riding a runaway train to election day.

The Senate gets its election marching orders

Published Feb. 17, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

You know the government is getting serious about calling an election when it starts issuing marching orders to its supporters in the Senate.

The Senate? That’s right. Senators don’t actually have to get elected in Canada.They are spared that inconvenience. But they do have roles to play – and pitfalls to avoid – as they were put on notice at a two-hour, closed-door meeting on Jan. 30.

According to the Hill Times, the newspaper for the denizens of the village known as Parliament Hill, the meeting was convened by Jean-Martin Masse, chief of staff to Senator Claude Carignan, the government leader in the upper house, and was attended by the executive assistants and policy advisers for all 52 Conservative senators. Continue reading

They were told that the prime minister wants no surprises from the Senate. He expects the Conservative majority to deal expeditiously – that is to say, to pass quickly – the government’s priority legislation, including its new anti-terrorism Bill C-51 and the controversial changes to the Canada Elections Act in Bill C-50.

Other than that, senators should stay out of the way. “Absolutely” no comment to be made to the media about the anxiously awaited auditor general’s report on senators’ expenses. No comment on the Mike Duffy trial, which is due to begin in April. No tweeting. In fact, no communication with journalists on any subject, or use of social media, without clearing it first with Sen. Carignan’s office.

Although government leader in the Senate is no longer a cabinet position – Prime Minister Harper made that change to distance his administration from the ongoing Senate expense scandal – Sen. Carignan is his point man. And he appears to be blessed with adequate staff resources.

According to the Hill Times, “Some of the senior staffers from Sen. Carignan’s office who attended and led the (Jan. 30) meeting were: Jean-Martin Masse, chief of staff; Natalie Fletcher, director of parliamentary affairs; Yana Lukasheh, parliamentary affairs adviser; Éric Gaganon, parliamentary affairs adviser; and Anaida Galindo, parliamentary affairs adviser.”

I don’t like to be rude, but why does a senator, who doesn’t even have cabinet responsibility, need one chief of staff, plus one director of parliamentary affairs and three – three! – parliamentary affairs advisers? And, let us not forget to mention, one “communications coordinator,” named Sébastien Gariépy, who also attended the meeting and in true Harper fashion, refused to comment on anything and everything that went on there.

What does a “parliamentary affairs adviser” or “communications coordinator” to a senator actually do? Are these real jobs?

In my day in Ottawa, many senators were accommodated two to an office with a shared secretary. MPs generally had private offices, although some shared. Cabinet ministers had an executive assistant who ran the office, a secretary who answered the phone and typed letters, a special assistant who wrote speeches and press releases, carried suitcases and drank beer with reporters, and perhaps a departmental assistant, seconded from the civil service, who acted as liaison between the minister and the officials in his department.

That would never do today. In those days, a couple of dozen people worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, about half of them in the correspondence section, answering the mail. Today, Harper has 12 “directorates” in his office with a political staff that fluctuates in size, but generally is in the 90-100 range – plus, of course, the Privy Council Office, whose 900-odd public servants report to the PMO.

These numbers must explain why Canada is so much better governed today than it was in the bad old days when it was all a government could do to introduce the Canadian flag, bring in medicare and the Canada Pension Plan, abolish capital punishment, overhaul the Criminal Code and enact the Official Languages Act. Think how much more productive they could have been if the prime minister then had a proper complement of “directorates” and if senators had a band of “parliamentary affairs advisers” to help them march to the Prime Minister’s tune.

 

Harper has trust issues with MPs, SCOC

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Stephen Harper doesn’t like Parliament very much, to put it politely. He is certainly not the first prime minister to harbor dark thoughts about the institution and its inmates (Pierre Trudeau comes to mind), and he won’t be the last, but Harper carries his disdain to a higher level. Even though he has a majority government – and thereby has effective control over everything Parliament does – he does not trust the place or its members.

Bill C-51, the government’s new anti-terrorism legislation, is a case in point. Given the importance that the government attaches to the bill, it should have been presented first to elected representatives in Parliament. Instead, Harper went off-site, to a Tory-friendly political rally in Richmond Hill; he’d pulled the same stunt before with the government’s fiscal updates.

Bill C-51 raises two issues that need to be addressed by Parliament. First, do the security agencies really need increased powers?  Are the powers already vested in the Criminal Code and other federal statutes truly inadequate? Second, who will watch the watchers? What sort of oversight will be put in place to ensure that the new powers are not abused?

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For example, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is our national spy agency. It gathers intelligence on groups and individuals that it believes may be a threat to national security. Bill C-51 would increase the scope of CSIS from spy agency to secret police. Not only would it gather information and monitor suspicious activities, it would have new powers to disrupt those activities.

Currently, such oversight as there is of CSIS is entrusted to the grossly underfunded Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a five-member body that until recently was chaired by the notorious Dr. Arthur Porter, a patronage appointee chosen by the prime minister; at last report, Porter was in jail in Panama fighting extradition to Montreal to face major fraud charges, his wife already having pleaded guilty.

The case for parliamentary or legislative oversight is compelling. That’s the way it is done in Washington, Britain and Australia where all-party committees of elected representatives, meeting in private, review the operations of the spy services. Those committees are accountable to Congress or Parliament. The system is not perfect, but it is preferable to leaving oversight to a shadowy group like SIRC, which appears to be accountable to no one.

Parliamentary oversight is not going to happen in Ottawa. Harper has made it clear through his parliamentary secretary that he is happy with the system as it exists. He is not about to give authority to MPs who, heaven forbid, might want to ask to ask him questions he wouldn’t want to answer – just as, a few years ago he refused to answer questions about the costs of new prisons and the F-35 fighter aircraft program.

Parliament is not the only Ottawa institution that Harper dislikes. The list is quite long, but the Supreme Court of Canada would be near the top. It frustrates him. He has appointed seven of the nine members of the current court – and where is their loyalty, their gratitude? They no sooner don their ermine-trimmed robes than they turn on him.

Last year they prevented him from appointing Marc Nadon, a Federal Court judge whose conservative bent he liked, on the ground that, as the government well knew, he was not eligible for the Supreme Court. Harper didn’t like that at all.

Last week, the court opened an issue that Harper very much wanted to avoid: the right to doctor-assisted suicide. Reversing a ruling it had made 21 years ago in the Sue Rodriguez case, the court ruled that desperately ill Canadians have a constitutional right to assistance to end their lives. The decision was unanimous, 9-0, all seven Harper appointees supporting the ruling.

The court set down a number of safeguards and gave the Conservatives one year to write a new law. It was not a message Harper wanted to hear in election year.

Tories bask in momentum and good luck

Published Feb. 2, 2015, in the Guelph Mercury.

Never write off the incumbent. Never underestimate the resiliency of the party in power or its willingness to employ the tools of office to drive a wedge into a divided opposition or to exploit the weakness or uncertainty of its opponents. Not least, never discount the ability of the people who sit in the driver’s seat to create their own luck. Opposition parties have to wait for the government to make mistakes; a government has the weapons to force opposition parties to make crippling mistakes.

We are seeing this in election year 2015. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is regarded by his opponents as being manipulative, cynical, hypocritical and unscrupulous (among other negative adjectives). He may be all of those things, but he is also very good at what he does best – playing no-prisoners politics. He is also lucky, very lucky. Continue reading

Less than two years ago, the Conservatives were in dire straits. They were desperately hanging onto second place in the polls, so behind the Liberals that they could barely see the taillights of Justin Trudeau’s vintage Mercedes. The question wasn’t whether the Liberals would win the election, but how badly the Tories would lose it. The question wasn’t whether Harper would survive as leader, but how soon he would depart.

Their twin planks, sound economic management and law and order, weren’t giving them any traction. The economy was recovering and the crime rate was declining, but neither helped the Conservatives’ numbers. And Harper remained deeply unpopular. He was not responsible for the collapse of world oil prices – we can blame the Saudis, if we wish – but the decline in the value of crude from more than $100 a barrel to less than $50 exposed the hollowness of the Harper claim to be building Canada into an energy super power.

So did the government’s inability to persuade the United States to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, despite nagging and mildly threatening the Obama administration. As the price of oil plunged, so did the government’s revenues. When the price was at $81 a barrel, it thought could still avoid running a deficit. When it reached $50, it didn’t know what to do. Rather than admit that, it postponed the budget until April or later, if only to give the chefs in the finance department time to cook the books enough to pass inspection by the electorate.

The Tories’ claim to be world-class financial managers may have been in tatters, but just when the picture seemed bleakest, Harper got a stroke of good luck. It seems indecent to suggest that the murder of Canadian servicemen in Ottawa and Quebec, the menace of ISIS and other international terrorists, including the savage beheading of hostages, represent good luck for anyone, but it did, politically for Harper. He played his law and order card as an anti-terrorism card, as he declared war on the “jihadis.”

Interestingly, he went to Richmond Hill, not Parliament Hill, to announce his new anti-terrorism measures – to a Tory-friendly, campaign-style rally last week. Veteran lawyers may suggest the new powers are not needed because there are already powers enough in the Criminal Code while civil liberties experts contend the legislation will place individual rights in jeopardy.

Harper was having none of that as he portrayed his critics as bleeding-heart fence-sitters: “This is really what we get from our opposition, that every time we talk about security, they suggest that somehow, our freedoms are threatened … I think Canadians understand that, more often than not, their freedom and security go hand in hand … We do not buy the argument that every time you protect Canadians you somehow take away their liberties.”

Harper is on a roll. New vote projections suggest he will win at least a minority government. Momentum and more good luck could carry him to a majority. But luck is fickle and momentum is transitory. Harper knows that. It’s why I think he will call an election this spring.

A landscape of broken political promises

Published Jan. 26, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Canadians are cynical about politicians and their promises, especially in election season. Their cynicism is not without cause.

Take Toronto’s new mayor, John Tory. Campaigning for office last fall, Tory declared that he would freeze transit fares for at least the first year of his term. But, oops, last week, in his first budget, Tory announced a 10-cent increase in TTC fares.

Did he lie in the campaign? Or, to use a less pejorative term, did he (knowingly or unknowingly) mislead the electorate about his intentions? Or was his intent pure, but he was forced to reverse himself when he learned facts of which he had not previously been aware? Tory chose the last-mentioned defence, saying he did not realize how bad things were at the TTC until after he assumed office. Continue reading

That’s the same defence Dalton McGuinty had used a decade earlier. He promised in the 2003 Ontario provincial election that his Liberals, if entrusted with office, would not increase taxes. But once elected, he discovered, or said he discovered, that the previous Progressive Conservative government, had been running a massive hidden deficit. So the Liberals had no choice but to raise taxes, which they did in their first budget by levying a whopping new “health premium.”

The broken promise dogged McGuinty throughout his first term as premier. John Tory will have less grief with his broken promise on transit fares. The increase is modest, most Torontonians want improved public transit, they realize the TTC has been starved for funds, and, besides, they are delighted, as the Toronto Star observed, just to have mayor who shows up for work sober.

The political landscape is littered with broken promises. Back in the 1960s, the Liberal prime minister of the day, Lester Pearson, promised to introduce a universal, comprehensive, publicly administered, national health insurance plan – medicare, as we know it today. The start date would be July 1, 1967 – Canada’s 100th birthday.

Problem was, by 1966, the government’s finances were in a wobbly state. The Liberal left wing, led by Walter Gordon, insisted that the promise of July 1, 1967, had to be honoured. The right wing, led by Mitchell Sharp, argued that the introduction had to be put off. The two sides battled it out at the Liberal party’s national convention in the fall of 1966. The Sharp forces won, the promise was broken, and medicare was put off until July 1, 1968.

In the 1993 election, Jean Chrétien promised that, if elected, a Liberal government would scrap the hated goods and services tax. The Liberals won, but the GST survived; no prime minister in his right senses would have slaughtered such a cash cow. Did Chrétien appreciate this during the campaign? Of course, he did. Did he lie to the electorate? Well, let’s be charitable and say he misled it.

The same argument can be made about the elections of 1984 and 2006. In 1984, Conservative leader Brian Mulroney promised to stamp out patronage in the federal government. The promise proved to be a huge joke, as Mulroney presided over the most patronage-obsessed government in Canadian history. Same thing in 2006. Stephen Harper was going to run a patronage-free government. Once elected, he set off to join Mulroney atop Patronage Mountain.

Harper has problems with promises again as he gears up for a general election this year. (I think it will be before summer.) Suffering perhaps from a deficit-elimination fetish, he is still promising a balanced budget in fiscal 2015-16, despite the collapse of world oil prices, which the Conference Board of Canada reckons will cost Ottawa $4.3 billion in revenue. But the Conservatives rashly went ahead and promised $4.6 billion in new tax reductions and increased spending (income-splitting for parents and an expanded child tax credit).

Some, maybe all, of these promises – balanced budget, lower taxes and higher spending – will have to be broken. How Harper will navigate through this minefield could be the story of Election 2015.

Tories would benefit the most from a snap election in the spring

Published Jan. 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I think the government’s decision to postpone its annual budget until April or later is a signal that Stephen Harper is seriously considering a snap election this spring.

Consider the scenario. The Conservatives have been moving at a measured pace toward a general election on Oct. 19. The electoral pieces were being put in place. So confident was the government of its fiscal projections that it started to spend its anticipated 2015 surplus before it had the revenue in hand. Back in October, it locked in $4.6 billion in new tax and spending commitments (for income-splitting for parents and an expanded child tax credit). Continue reading

About the same time, world oil prices started to crater. By the time Finance Minister Joe Oliver presented his fiscal update in November, the price of crude was down to $81 a barrel. Not to worry, Oliver said.  Oil will bounce back.  It didn’t, of course. By last week, crude was down to $48, knocking the government’s revenue projections into a cocked hat. Canada won’t be an energy super power, as the Tories like to boast, any time soon.

The government won’t be able to afford income-splitting or the child tax credit, let alone any new election goodies. It will have to struggle just to sustain existing services without tax increases or more program cuts – or a return to deficit financing.

That would mean presenting a bad-news budget in February or March (the usual budget months). Caught between a rock and a hard place, Oliver (meaning Harper) postponed the budget. They say they need more time to gather economic information.

aybe. But I suspect they want time to retool their election strategy. It could go something like this. Around the end of February, Harper announces that world conditions have changed so dramatically, both in terms of the global energy picture and in terms of the international terrorist threat, that he needs a fresh mandate to provide strong leadership on these issues. There is no easy path. The return to a surplus will have to wait, as will tax breaks for Canadian families. The government will also be asking Canadians to support a package of tough anti-terrorism laws to make sure a Charlie Hebdo massacre never happens here. The election will be held in late April or early May. A budget will follow some time thereafter.

As a strategy, it plays to Conservative strengths – the perception that Tories are strong managers and wise stewards of the economy, along with their image of being implacable foes of criminals and especially terrorists. An April/May election would be fought on the basis of the challenges that will be facing the government and nation rather than on the record of Harper’s decade in office. Chances are even the Mike Duffy trial, due to begin in April, would get lost in election crossfire. Who really cares about a piddling Senate expense scandal at a time when the economy and the safety of Canadians are at issue?

Recent opinion polls offer support for a spring election. After trailing for two years, the Conservatives have pulled even with the Liberals in most polls, and last week a new Ipsos Reid poll put them four points ahead – 35 per cent to 31. This trend is not yet established, and 35 per cent is only enough for a minority government. Political analysts generally agree that, given the distribution of seats, a party needs about 38 per cent for a bare majority.

With their current momentum, a majority could be within the Tories’ reach this spring. The question Conservatives are asking themselves is this: Would it not be smarter to go now when the polls look promising rather than spend the spring and summer defending a bad-news budget, cutting spending, worrying about what the Saudi-led cartel may do with the price of oil, and watching anxiously for new terrorist eruptions?

By comparison, an election would be a stroll in the park.

Is Lady Luck smiling on the Tories?

Published Jan. 12, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Politics is like warfare in at least one sense. When you are lucky, even your enemies (or political opponents) conspire to assist you.

We’ve seen a lot of that in Canadian politics in recent times. Good luck gave Kathleen Wynne a majority government in Ontario last year when her principal opponent, Tim Hudak, promised to fire 100,000 provincial public servants if his Progressive Conservatives were elected. His campaign went dead on the spot. Wynne did not have to push Hudak. He jumped off that cliff all by himself.

Luck made Stephen Harper prime minister. It had nothing to do with his exciting personality, dazzling policies or love of The Beatles. It had everything to do with the sponsorship scandal, which cut the Liberals to a minority government in 2004, then handed to keys to Parliament Hill to Harper and the Conservatives in 2006.

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For a while, their luck continued as the Liberals made flawed leadership choices with Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. But lady luck is a fickle dame. No sooner had the Tories secured their coveted majority in 2011 than she turned on them. A series of misadventures, most of them avoidable and self-inflicted, brought them so far down in the polls that they were barely able to stay ahead of the third-place New Democrats. There was the Senate scandal and coverup, F-35 fiasco, prorogation of Parliament to avoid opposition questions, misuse of public funds for partisan advertising, attacks on the chief justice, auditor general and other public servants, and the cavalier treatment of military veterans, to name just a few.

These things added up to a portrait in the public mind of a government that had grown arrogant, insensitive, out of touch, indifferent to public concerns, and careless with the taxpayers’ money.

The Liberals could scarcely believe their good luck. It was no accident that when they came to choose a new leader, they chose one who was the antithesis of Harper in important ways. The public liked what the party saw in Justin Trudeau, and for the 21 months since he became leader, the Liberals have led in the polls.

In recent months, however, the polls have tightened as the election, due in October, approaches. The Liberals’ luck is waning. Excitement over Trudeau is yielding to doubts about his gravitas and lack of political experience. Economic concerns are bubbling up, especially over the future of the energy sector as crude oil prices continue to fall. Does it make sense, voters ask, to change governments when so much is in flux in an uncertain world? What could the Liberals do that the Conservatives aren’t already doing?

Lady luck came to the Tories’ aid again in October when the shooting on Parliament Hill raised security concerns to the top of the public mind. With its anti-crime agenda, the Harper Conservatives “own” the security issue. It had already sent CF-18s to fight ISIS in Iraq. Now it was presented with perfect conditions to promote its legislative ambitions for more weapons to combat terrorists and terrorism at home.

Although much of that “war” is political rhetoric or propaganda, there is little the opposition parties can do. If the NDP or Liberals criticize the government, they risk being labelled soft on terrorism, and the Tories would brand them that way in a nanosecond.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine in Paris, last week, could have profound impact on the federal election here, especially if other outrages follow. As prime minister, Harper has the platform, which he quickly used to declare his commitment to a global war against the “international jihadist movement.” The next round of polls will, I am sure, show a bump in Conservative support.

Again, what can his opponents do but echo the prime minister? They won’t be happy about it. They know Harper has just drawn a royal flush in what is potentially the biggest political jackpot of the year.

There’s more to Justin than his famous surname

Published Jan. 5, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

People who lead public lives write their memoirs for assorted reasons. Some of the reasons are good ones – for example, to share details of an important life. Or to provide important details or fresh insights to fill gaps in the historical record.

In other cases, the motives are less noble. Pure ego would be one of them. Another would be a desire to twist the record to make it reflect more kindly on the memoirist. Continue reading

Conrad Black used his 2011 memoir, “A Matter of Principle,” to try to settle scores with his corporate enemies who fed him to the U.S. justice system and thence to prison. Brian Mulroney took a different tack: legacy enhancement by omission. Not once in his 1,015-page doorstopper, “Brian Mulroney: Memoirs,” did he mention Karlheinz Schreiber, his erstwhile friend and lobbyist who became the central figure in the Airbus scandal. And, of course, there was no mention of the $300,000 in cash that Schreiber slipped to the former prime minister in a series of hotel room meetings.

Justin Trudeau’s new book is in a different category. Entitled “Common Ground,” it is an attempt to add some substance to the Liberal leader’s thin political resume. Many ambitious politicians have produced memoirs for the similar purposes, including Barack Obama (“Dreams from My Father”) and Hillary Clinton (“Hard Choices”).

Trudeau’s memoir is not the self-serving treacle that one might have expected. Conservatives won’t agree, but it is actually quite a good book. Those who take the trouble to read it will discover there is more to Justin than a famous surname, a good head of hair and an easy way with people, especially younger ones. He has ideas and commitment. His limited experience in practical politics is offset by a powerful work ethic and an instinct for retail politics – meeting people, listening to what they have to say, relating to their concerns, and working crowds.

It’s an instinct inherited from his outgoing mother Margaret, whose father Jimmy Sinclair, a federal minister in the St. Laurent era, was one of the great retail politicians of his time. Justin did not inherit it from his cerebral (and surprisingly shy) father Pierre, who had learned how to command crowds but was never entirely comfortable with voters in groups large or small.

Justin combines some of the best of each parent. From Margaret he got warmth; from Pierre a commitment to signature values, including a strong central government and a conviction that Canada’s strength, not its weakness, lies in its differences, in the diversity of its people.

But he recognizes that his father was not always right. His National Energy Program was a mistake: “The NEP ended up inciting precisely the kind of division my father had fought his whole life to bridge, in Quebec and elsewhere.” And Justin attributes the Liberals’ spectacular fall from grace in the disastrous 2011 election to, in part, Pierre Trudeau’s failure to nurture the party’s grass roots during his years as leader.

That’s an omission Justin is determined not to repeat. His priority is to build the party from the ground up. That’s what the Conservatives have done over the past decade. “The Conservative party owes its success to the ardent devotion of its grassroots,” Trudeau writes, “but Mr. Harper has turned it into a vehicle for the perpetuation of his prime ministership.”

The crucial difference between his Liberals and Harper’s Conservatives is the Liberals seek to solve political issues by finding common ground among people and regions, while the Conservatives do not. “Their approach is to exploit divisions rather than bridge them,” Trudeau writes. “Perhaps that’s an effective political strategy, but it’s a lousy way to govern a country, especially one as diverse as ours. Once you’ve divided people against one another – East against West, urban against rural, Quebec against the rest of Canada – so you can win an election, it’s very hard to pull them back together again to solve our shared problems.”

Harper must learn to get along with others

Published Dec. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Stephen Harper is a stolid sort. He will never be the kind sort of politician who radiates unbridled energy or rousing enthusiasm. Even so, he seems flat, worn down perhaps, in his public appearances of late. I’m thinking of his year-end interviews, his Christmas message to Canadians and other occasions when he has been on television over the holidays. He looks tired.

And why shouldn’t he? He’s been at it, national politics, for 21 years; a national party leader – Canadian Alliance first, then Conservative party – for 12 years; he’s fought four national elections, winning three of them; and he’s been prime minister for nearly nine, often difficult, years.

Even Mackenzie King, who did it longer than anyone else, would have trouble matching Harper’s record in this media-obsessed age. Continue reading

As 2015 begins, Harper has to gird himself to fight another general election on Oct. 19, and he knows the odds are against his emerging with another majority Conservative government, and that his chances of retaining a minority may be no better than 50-50. He would not be human if he were not asking himself if the game is worth the candle.

Of course, he says he intends to fight on, and we have to accept that he means it. He knows his great asset is not his government’s record, which cuts both ways, but the divided opposition. As long as he can keep the Liberals and New Democrats at each other’s throats, the Conservatives can win. If they ever get their acts together, the Harper era will be over and Harper himself will go down as more of a manager and manipulator than a visionary leader.

On the off-chance that the prime minister may be interested in burnishing his legacy, here are a few utterly gratuitous suggestions for the new year.

Restore parliamentary democracy at least to the state it was before he took office. Harper might take a page from a speech delivered in Charlottetown last month by Stephen Lewis, the humanitarian, former United Nations ambassador and former Ontario NDP leader.

“You can have deep ideological rifts across the floor of the House of Commons, and still manage to effect good, positive social change,” Lewis said. “But a vital requirement is respect: vitriolic nastiness in debate does not breed respect, nor does adolescent partisanship, nor do pieces of legislation of encyclopedic length that hide contentious issues, nor does the
sudden emergence of frenzied TV attack ads, nor does the spectre of a Prime Minister’s Office exercising authoritarian control. A legislature that functions with respect accomplishes a great deal.”

In other words, the people who sit across the aisle in Parliament are opponents; they are not mortal enemies. Treat them with the respect they deserve. Argue when you disagree, but remember they are also essential participants in our system. Stop sending out attack-trained parliamentary secretaries to savage opposition members when they try to do their job of holding ministers to account in Question Period. Stop trying to deceive Parliament by bootlegging important measures in huge omnibus bills. Stop flooding the airwaves with attack ads that insult the intelligence of the Canadian electorate. Stop trying to keep PMO control over everything that matters, and over some things that don’t matter at all.

To which, one might add, try to get along with others whose purpose, like the prime minister’s, is to serve Canada. The list is long. It includes the premier of Ontario and the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, neither of whom gets the respect she deserves from the prime minister. It also includes the parliamentary budget officer, auditor general, information commissioner and chief electoral officer – four officials whose mandate is to serve Parliament even if it puts them at odds with the PMO.

Is there any chance Harper would heed such transformative advice? I fear not. The road to election day is a long one. Unfortunately it does not pass through Damascus.

Ontario, Quebec voters likely to decide 2015 election

Published Dec. 22, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As the country approaches federal election year 2015, only two things appear certain.

First, the 42nd Canadian general election will be held as scheduled on Oct. 19. That’s what the law provides, and, although the prime minister can change the date by cabinet order, Stephen Harper made it reasonably clear in his year-end interviews that he is as unlikely to do that as he is to grant Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne an audience any time soon. (That is to say, any time before hell freezes over. But I digress.)

The second “certainty” is that no one has the faintest idea what may happen on Oct. 19. There have been occasions in the past when polls published 10 to 12 months before a general election proved to be reasonably accurate indicators of polling day. Not this year.

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It’s not so much that the polls are volatile as it is that they are shifting restlessly. The third-place Liberals had enjoyed a fairly comfortable lead ever since they made Justin Trudeau their leader in the spring of 2013. In recent months, however, their lead shrank and virtually disappeared as the issues shifted from the Liberal court (distaste for Harper; time for a change) to the Conservative court (national security; the economy, especially the energy sector; and uneasiness about Trudeau’s ability to lead the nation).

But just as it seemed the Conservatives were on the rebound, the numbers moved again. It’s the sort of thing that causes political prognosticators to tear out their hair in frustration. The latest round of published polls puts the Liberals ahead by roughly four percentage points. It’s not much, but if it signals a reversal of the downward trend, it could be significant. Or not.

On Friday, the web-based poll aggregator, ThreeHundredEight.com, having incorporated the most recent surveys, presented these numbers: Liberals 35.6 per cent; Conservatives 31.9; NDP 20.2; Greens 6; Bloc 4.3; and others 2.1.

In other words, minority government. In fact, ThreeHundredEight.com, projected a dead heat with the Liberals and Conservatives each winning 134 seats, the NDP 67, Greens 2, and Bloc 1 in the enlarged 338-seat House of Commons.

If those numbers bear out, 2015 would see the closest national election since 1972 when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals won just two seats more than Robert Stanfield’s Tories.

Will it happen? Probably not. What makes elections so fascinating is this: when the electorate takes it into its head to move, no one — not pollsters, poll aggregators, pundits or political gurus — knows how far it may move and where it may stop.

The best the aforementioned pollsters, etc. can do is watch certain key areas. They know (or assume) the Atlantic region will go heavily Liberal. They think the Prairies will again be strongly, if not solidly, Conservative. They believe British Columbia will produce the most drama, with a number of close three- and even four-way races.

But it’s the two big provinces, Ontario and Quebec, that will decide the outcome. In Quebec, the New Democrats’ “Orange” breakthrough of 2011, under Jack Layton, is threatened by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. The latest polls put the Liberals four to five points up on the NDP, now led by Quebecer Thomas Mulcair. But that lead can evaporate overnight. The Conservatives are effectively on the sidelines in the province, while the Bloc Québécois appears to have outlived whatever relevance it might once have had.

To Ontario, then, with its wealth of 121 seats. The 73 seats that Harper took in 2011 made his majority. Can he duplicate that performance? The polls are very tight, with the Liberals, strong in the cities, especially Toronto, sitting about three points ahead of the Conservatives, who poll well in the suburbs and in the towns of southwestern Ontario. The NDP is well back with about one-half the support of the other two.

The fight between now and Oct. 19 promises to be brutal. It will make 2015 a year for the books for political junkies.