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?

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.

Something Old or Something New? Territorial Development and Influence within the Canadian Federation

9781553392071

 

 

 

 

 

Authors: George Braden, Christopher Alcantara, and Michael Morden.

Published in Canada: The State of the Federation, 2011, edited by Nadia Verrelli.

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Description: Copy of chapter available here.

Combat could be game changer in next vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health system needs federal leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PM should heed Mulroney’s career advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access to Information and Research Road Blocks

In the Winnipeg Free Press, perspectives and politics editor Shannon Sampert (who is also from the University of Winnipeg) has a great article about the challenges many journalists have in getting information from government. She describes road blocks put in place by government that are disturbing, yet far too common: obscenely high fees for receiving documents and filing Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests, insufferable delays in getting information and rampant inaccessibility.

Those of us doing research in political science also experience the challenges that Sampert describes. Getting government documents and accessing budget figures are often far more challenging than they need to be.

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Gaining access to information from municipal governments is particularly challenging. Over the past three years, I have been conducting research on inter-local agreement use in Canada – basically agreements for shared servicing and contracting among municipalities. Part of this work is building a database of inter-municipal agreements. Getting access to these documents has been incredibly challenging. Very few of these agreements are publicly accessible. Those that are not need to be requested, often with FOI requests. Copying and delivery charges are applied. More concerning, many of these documents arrive redacted with basic information removed, making them practically useless for research purposes. Often information provided by city staff is incomplete. Needless to say, this is usually a frustrating and costly experience.

Many would refer to this as an occupational hazard (this, of course, is the cost of doing research), but consider the fact that these are documents that address servicing for local citizens. If I, as a curious researcher, do not have access to documents detailing the contracting and shared servicing agreements a municipality has in place, how are members of that particular community supposed to know how their local services are delivered? As an example, do they not have a right to know that when they turn on a tap their water is being delivered from another municipality? Do they not have a right to know how much their municipal government is paying for that water? Or how it is administered? Or under what conditions the other municipality could shut off that service?

Most people are simply satisfied that water comes out of their tap and are not concerned its the source. But the fact remains that those interested need to have access to that information.

The information blocking strategies that Sampert describes in Winnipeg are common across the country. Below are a few that require the attention of government.

1) The filing fees for FOI requests are modest (between $5-$25 for getting the process started), but when filing multiple requests, the cost can become prohibitive.

2) Far too often, the manner in which information can be accessed is inconvenient and one can only imagine designed to impede transfer. Sampert describes a reporter being made to transfer information about municipal campaign donations by hand at city hall – no copying, no taking photos. Everything needed to be transferred by hand. This is unacceptable, but far too common. Municipal staff should not necessarily be responsible for digitizing documents for us, but researchers should be allowed to copy public information however they wish.

3) In municipalities where access to information is granted, fees for copying and distribution are often prohibitive. Estimates for certain sets of documents can run into the hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of dollars. Sampert describes how much journalists are spending up to $500 a year on access to information fees and charges. It’s the same for researchers. Depending on the size of the project, perhaps two or three times that amount. Fees placed on information provision needs to be examined and standardized.

4) There are always options for fee waiver by an FOI commissioner. However, the conditions for granting a fee waiver are quite arbitrary. One condition for a fee waiver is that the information would be used to enhance the “public good.” There is no set criteria of what constitutes enhancing the public good. I have personally had fee waiver approved in some cases because I was conducing research (after I could prove conclusively that I was not financially profiting from the publishing of this research), but in other cases I have been rejected for fee waivers precisely because I was publishing in academic journals. The reason given here is that academic journals are not publicly accessible. In most cases, a fee waiver is denied with little explanation as to why. The fee appeal process needs to be examined and hopefully standardized.

As Sampert argues, journalists need to have access to government information to do their jobs. So do researchers. In both cases, we’re providing the public with information they should have access to already. Roadblocks put in place to access information need to come down. The process needs reform.

Press Freedom, Journalism and the Duty to Answer Questions

Recently, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that he would no longer deal with any journalists from the Sun News outlet because of a particularly virulent report from Ezra Levant.

While this is serious inside baseball, it does touch on an important point in press-government relations: Does the freedom of the press imply a duty to answer questions? Although the Trudeau-Levant kerfuffle is small-ball, the question is a larger one.

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My first reaction is that, no, a free press does not imply a duty to answer questions.

Press freedom is usually justified on the grounds that citizens require information about public affairs that does not stem from the state itself and that a free press is a useful check on state power. On the face of it, I don’t think that the latter reason for a free press gets you at all close to justifying an obligation to answer questions. The former reason might get you closer in that in a hypothetical world where no politicians took any questions from any journalists, the citizenry might lack sufficient information to serve as citizens. But it fails on a couple of other counts. First, the obligation seems wholly impractical to implement. Second, though, even in the hypothetical scenario I described above that did involve the executive being held to account to the legislature in debate open to a free press and the legislature being held to account to the people in open elections, with a free press operating, you’d be hard pressed to argue that citizens had no access to information.

This comes up pretty often, whenever a politician gets in a fight with journalists. Politicians rarely win out when they do get in these conflicts. But it’s one thing to say that it’s good sense for politicians to deal with journalists, and another thing to say that there’s an obligation to answer questions. While most journalists are reflexive enough to be aware that a free press does not imply an obligation to answer questions, a lot of the coverage of events like these gets pretty close to implying that there is a duty which is being shirked.

Of course one of the main reasons many journalists often push this interpretation is that it’s in their interests to. I’m currently working on a research project with a colleague that will put forward some survey data from politicians and journalists that will show the competing standards for particular democratic standards differ greatly. Journalists in particular hold to standards that, surprise, surprise, emphasize the importance of their own role.

Harper keeping his options open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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