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.

Letter from a lickspittle

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

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper
24 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario.

My very dear Prime Minister:

Permit me, on behalf of a grateful nation, to extend our thanks for your enlightened stewardship and our best wishes for an exceptionally happy Christmas. Your loyal subjects join you in eager anticipation of your re-election next October to a fourth term as PM. Your place in Canadian history is secure; soon you will join the pantheon of world greats.

But you know all this. Let me get to the point. There’s a pile of presents under your Christmas tree, gifts from supporters and favour-seekers. But be careful, Prime Minister, there is one “gift” you do not want to open. It will cause you great distress. It is a new book entitled “Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover” by Michael Harris.

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It is a nasty piece of work, Sir. Very nasty. It alleges that since you took command of the state in 2006, you have endeavored, with considerable success, to make the Conservative party and indeed the entire government accountable to just one person – to you, Mr. Harper. The indictment is lengthy. You insist on controlling everything yet refuse to accept blame when things go wrong. You do not trust science, statistics or any information that does not coincide with your own beliefs or partisan intentions. You have no faith in public servants and diplomats to give you objective advice. You withhold information. You treat Parliament with contempt.

You have changed the country. As Michael Harris writes: “Until that moment (when you became prime minister), Canada had been a secular and progressive nation that believed in transfer payments to better distribute the country’s wealth, the Westminster model of governance, a national medicare program, a peacekeeping role for the armed forces, an arm’s-length public service, the separation of church and state, and solid support for the United Nations. Stephen Harper believed in none of these things.”

Please, Prime Minister, do not assume “Party of One” is some sort of partisan rant, a piece of opposition propaganda in election year. It is much more than that. It is a deeply researched and meticulously documented account of your years in office. I have known Harris for years and I worked with him at the Globe and Mail. He is a superb investigative reporter, one of the best. He specializes in finding slithery things hidden under rocks.

His first book, “Justice Denied,” reported the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall, a Mi’kmaq Indian in Nova Scotia, who spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His second, “Unholy Orders,” ripped the lid off the cover-up of sexual and physical abuse of boys at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland.

He brings the same intensity to his scrutiny of your reign. It’s all there: the robocall scandal and election-spending abuses; the destruction of Linda Keen, the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; the F-35 folly; your vendetta against Helena Guergis, who was one of your MPs and ministers until you threw her under the bus; your wars against Statistics Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Auditor General and even the Chief Justice of Canada; your government’s hypocritical treatment of veterans; and your errors in judgment in trusting high office to people who should be in jail instead. And, of course, there was your signature folly: Mike Duffy and the Senate-expense scandal; Harris probes your complicity in exhaustive detail.

As I advised at the outset, please, Prime Minister, do not read this book. It will make you angry. It will make you want to get even. You may even want to sue the author for being beastly to you.  I wouldn’t do that, Sir. If the case ends up before the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice and her colleagues may remember how you tried to beat her up after the court blocked your appointment of the ineligible Marc Nadon. Judges have long memories.

Your faithful lickspittle,
etc., etc.

Harper isn’t out of the woods yet

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

A headline on the front page of the National Post the other day caught my eye: “How the PM got his groove back.”

In the piece, Ottawa columnist John Ivison advanced the argument that, having weathered a particularly rough patch in Parliament and in the opinion polls, Stephen Harper seems to be on the rebound. His Conservatives have pulled virtually even with the Liberals in the polls and Harper now enjoys a small lead over Liberal Justin Trudeau in leadership popularity. The PM’s self-confidence, badly shaken by opposition attacks over the Mike Duffy Senate scandal a year ago, has returned. As Ivison put it, “Mr. Harper has his mojo back.”

I’m not sure precisely what “mojo” is, but why shouldn’t the prime minister have his back? A year ago, with the Liberals running about 10 points ahead in the polls and the Conservatives struggling to keep from sliding behind the NDP, the poll aggregator threehundredeight.com was projecting a minority Liberal government, with 142 seats in the enlarged 338-seat Commons (with 117 Conservatives and 68 New Democrats). The positions are reversed today. The new projection: a minority Tory government with 134 seats (with 118 Liberals and 83 NDP).

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Those numbers are bound to change, perhaps more than once, before next October. But for the moment Conservatives can breathe again while they pray that the trend continues. Harper had a good summer and fall playing on the world stage, including a trip to China and his bristly encounter with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Australia. The government’s economic numbers were good enough that he was able to start rolling out pre-election tax cuts.

The Duffy scandal has faded, if only temporarily. Harper looked decisive and in charge (while Trudeau looked muddled) when he declared that Canada would commit aircraft to the battle against ISIS terrorists in Iraq. And he was able to watch from the safety of the sidelines while his Liberal and NDP opponents tied themselves in unnecessary knots over allegations of sexual abuse on Parliament Hill. The divided opposition continues to be the Tories’ ace in the hole.

But Harper is not out of the woods yet. Collapsing oil prices may cast the Conservatives’ economic strategy into the dust bin, making it impossible for them to buy votes with tax cuts. The Mike Duffy trial, scheduled to begin in April, could blow up in their faces if it can be shown, as Senator Duffy alleges, that the Prime Minister was an informed participant in covering up the scandal.

I’m a bit of an outlier in the Duffy matter. I still don’t see how the senator can be convicted of accepting a $90,000 bribe when no one is charged with offering the bribe, not even the man who wrote the $90,000 cheque, Harper’s then chief of staff, Nigel Wright. The fact that no fewer than 31 charges (many of them amounting to the same thing) have been laid against Duffy also makes me suspicious. Over-charging is often the sign of a weak prosecutorial case.

Has the Hill become a daycare centre?

Published Dec. 1, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Are there no adults in Ottawa these days?

The question is neither facetious nor entirely rhetorical. There are days when Parliament Hill resembles a giant day care centre more than the seat of serious government.

Where to begin? Well, let’s start with the bizarre episode of Peter Goldring, the Conservative member for Edmonton East, who last week to made his inane “contribution” to the controversy over alleged sexual misdeeds on the Hill by issuing a three-paragraph press release. In it, he referred to the two female MPs (unnamed) from the NDP who have accused two male MPs from the Liberal party (both named, shamed and suspended from caucus) of sexual abuse. Continue reading

The two New Democrats, Goldring suggested, had acted with “shameful indiscretion and complicity,” and he announced he was taking measures to protect his 69-year-old body from unwanted advances from females of socialist or other persuasion. He said he wears “body-worn video recording equipment” (apparently a miniature camera and recorder hidden in a pen in his breast pocket). He advised MPs who “consort with others” to follow his example by wearing similar “risk protection” to “prevent besmirchment when encounters run awry.”

Besmirchment when encounters run awry? I have no idea what idiocy possessed Goldring. He is no newbie; he’s spent the past 17 years buried on the Tory backbench, where he seems destined to remain. Within hours, appalled that one of their sheep had escaped from the flock, the Prime Minister’s Office retracted Goldring’s comments and apologized on his behalf. (Perhaps there was actually an adult on duty in the PMO that day.)

Next, the somewhat related and equally bizarre case of Massimo Pacetti, the Liberal MP from Quebec who stands accused of sexual misconduct by one of the two NDP members who cannot be named. The story is familiar by now. The MP who cannot be named played on a sports team with Pacetti. Afterward, they went for drinks, then she accompanied him back to the hotel room where he lives while in Ottawa. He indicated he wanted to have sex; she says she didn’t really want to, but she handed him a condom anyway.

Afterward, she went to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to complain about Pacetti’s vile conduct. Trudeau dropped the hammer on Pacetti while carefully not identifying the complainant or even her party. Last week, the woman went public, so to speak. She gave a series of media interviews – all on the condition that she, being a “victim” of sexual abuse, not be named. She gave her account of the encounter, including her provision of the condom. She insisted, however, that she did not give “explicit consent” to the sex that followed. (What the condom implied to her, we may never know. Oh yes – and she wants an apology.)

These people are supposed to be adults. They are not fumbling adolescents. They are the people who make the laws that govern our lives and our country. Why can’t they act that way?

Final example. A week ago, the Harper government, which has been accused of lacking empathy for distressed former military personnel, moved to defuse a scathing report from the Auditor General. A battery of cabinet ministers announced they would spend $200 million in a six-year program to improve mental health services for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related injuries. Just what the doctor ordered and what veterans groups had been hoping for.

But wait! When opposition MPs got to read the fine print, it turned out that the $200 million is to be paid out over 50 years, not six.

Veterans and opposition MPs were outraged. It wasn’t just the money that won’t be available for today’s veterans. It is also the deception, the attempt to make a great deal out of precious little. The kids would call it putting lipstick on a pig. That’s something they might get away with in day care. In the adult world, in government, it’s called lying.

 

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.