Rethink policies on extracurricular activities

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

Over the last several months, Ontario teachers have been negotiating new collective agreements with their school boards and in some cases, with the Ontario government.

As students inch closer to graduation day, some parents have started to worry about the possibility of teacher strikes or school lockouts, the former of which is occurring in Durham this week. Others are concerned about the possibility of “work to rule,” where teachers protest the pace of their negotiations by ceasing all extracurricular activities to focus solely on teaching the curriculum.

In most cases, work-to-rule is the first line of defence for teachers when collective bargaining hits a wall. This strategy is designed to put pressure on the school boards to negotiate in good faith without jeopardizing the ability of students to complete their studies.

When work-to-rule happens, however, many parents and students complain bitterly about how unfair it is that they must suffer as innocent bystanders in the dispute between teachers and school boards.

Read more…

Put your money on an early election

Published Apr. 20, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

This advice is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a spare loonie or two, you might plunk them down on a modest wager: that Stephen Harper will call a general election by early summer.

Oh, I know that’s not conventional wisdom in Ottawa these days. Everyone is proceeding on the assumption that the election will not happen until Oct. 19, the scheduled date. Although no one is talking openly about an early election, you can bet your bottom loonie that the Conservatives are thinking about it.

Here’s the scenario. Finance Minister Joe Oliver presents his maiden budget on Tuesday. The government doesn’t have much fiscal wiggle room, but the budget will offer some fuel for the Tory spin machine. There will be some infrastructure spending, which can be spun into a major investment in job creation. There will be some tax relief, including income-splitting, for mid- to upper-income families, whom the party will be targeting. Continue reading

And the budget will show a small surplus. The Tories will not advertise that they inherited a surplus from the previous Liberal regime, or that they turned the surplus into a record deficit, and only now, a decade in, are proposing to break even. But they can be expected to saturate the airwaves with advertising to the effect that, under Harper, Canada has become the envy of the world, if not the galaxy, for its steady economic management in the face of collapsing oil prices and for its brave war on terror at home and abroad.

As the scenario unfolds, nothing will happen right away on the election front. The Conservatives will be polling frantically to see if their post-budget propaganda has moved the electorate. They have been in a deep hole since ascendancy of Justin Trudeau to the Liberal leadership. The latest polls show them finally edging ahead of the Liberals and, although the trend may be in the Tories’ direction, their margin of one percentage point (32-31) in one composite of recent polls is decidedly precarious.

The date Tory strategists will be watching is May 5. That’s the day of the provincial election in Alberta, Harper’s home province and power base, which the Tories have ruled for 44 unbroken years. May 5 could end that run. Voters there are seriously angry. The new premier, Jim Prentice, is in deep trouble. His approval rating is an abysmal 22 per cent; his disapproval rating is 63 per cent. The latest polls put his Progressive Conservatives in third place, behind both Wildrose and the New Democrats.

It must be noted that the opinion polls were wildly wrong in the last Alberta election, but if they are not wrong on May 5, look for Harper to stuff his election genie back in the bottle until fall.

There’s another date to note. That’s May 2, the day Harper’s current mandate enters its fifth year. If the various portents – budget fallout, polls and Alberta – are favourable, the fifth anniversary of the election of his majority government might be an opportune time to call for a new mandate.

Although Harper is a polarizing figure, he has actually worn somewhat better with voters than two of his predecessors, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, who were deeply unpopular by the time they were eight or nine years into their prime ministries, as Harper is now. Yet he’s in a position today to win at least a minority government, thanks to the divided opposition.

The wild card in all this is the Mike Duffy trial, which continues until May 12, then takes a break and resumes from June 1 to 19. It has potential to do electoral damage to the Conservative brand. I’m not convinced it is a necessarily game changer, but with this trial you never know what the next testimony may produce.

So if you are tempted to bet on a June or early July election, okay. But keep it to a few loonies.

Treaties a basis for mutual respect

Published Apr. 9, 2015, in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Waterloo Region Record

If you open up a newspaper or read almost any academic study about aboriginal peoples in Canada, it’s easy to get depressed. Study after study and report after report tells us the status quo isn’t working. Put simply, aboriginal participation within the constitutional framework of Canada has failed and is doomed to failure. And so commentators argue the only paths to reconciliation are either aboriginal assimilation into Canadian society or independence from the Canadian state.

To understand where this pessimism comes from, all one has to do is look at what is supposed to be the bedrock of the aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships in this country: the treaty relationship. History has shown that Canada has simply been unable or unwilling to respect the aboriginal view of what these treaties are supposed to accomplish. For the Crown, historical and modern treaties are supposed to represent the full and final settlement of all outstanding issues with aboriginal peoples. Period. For aboriginal communities, however, treaties with the Crown are supposed to be akin to the beginning of a marriage where the spouses agree to live together, but also recognize they must constantly work on and redefine their marriage as time and circumstances change. It is this fundamental difference in worldviews that breeds conflict, mistrust, and the paths of assimilation and independence.

Yet this can’t and shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is a solution, but it requires Canadian citizens and leaders to remember and draw upon our frequently forgotten civic identity and political heritage

Read more. 

All eyes will be on Duffy this week

Published April 6, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Mike Duffy trial, which begins this week, is first of three political happenings that will determine the fate of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government this year. The second is the belated federal budget to be presented on April 21 by Finance Minister Joe Oliver, an improbable alchemist who will try to convince the country that it is possible to turn red ink into black.

The third is the election itself, which by law must be held no later than Oct. 19. The pre-campaign has already begun, thanks to the generosity of taxpayers who, without having to be asked, are graciously contributing $7.5 million to advertise the Tory budget before it has even been presented. That $7.5 million is just a drop in the bucket, of course, a pebble in the ocean, as the Conservatives will keep spending to sell their dual message: they are the only party that is serious about the terrorists in our midst; and they are the only ones who can rescue the economy from its miseries (some of which, or so it might be inferred, could be laid at the door of nine years of Tory economic management). Continue reading

Back to the Mike Duffy trial.  The suspended senator from Prince Edward Island (a former journalist and celebrity fundraiser for the Conservative party) faces a total of 31 charges, most of which will drop away as the trial proceeds. The big one is bribery. Duffy is accused of accepting $90,000 from Nigel Wright, then Harper’s chief of staff, so that he could reimburse the treasury for expenses he claimed on his residence in Ottawa. Duffy says the claim was legitimate, although he agreed under protest to repay the money; the government says the claim was fraudulent and that Duffy was guilty of accepting a bribe when he took the money and agreed to keep quiet about the whole affair.

However, Wright, who is expected to be the crown’s star witness, was not charged with offering a bribe (although he lost his job), and that non-charge could be the Achilles heel of the government’s case.

The first part of the trial will examine the Senate expense-accounting system. For years it operated more or less on an honour system; senators spent money in the course of their work and the Senate (aka the taxpayers) paid them back. Now, however, auditors have the final say. No expense claim is too picayune to escape their mind-numbing notice. Should senators who do not relish the cold Camembert that Air Canada serves its executive-class passengers be expected to eat it rather than expense a breakfast elsewhere? Who really cares?

There are real issues that may – and should – come to the fore in the 41 days set aside for the Duffy trial. One is the patronage-riddled system of naming senators. Duffy and his colleague Pamela Wallin, another former broadcast journalist, who was appointed the same day as “Old Duff,” were not chosen for what they could contribute to Parliament. They were appointed for what they could contribute to the Harper party. They were expected to go forth and attract crowds and raise money for the party.

They were very good at it. Harper loved them, until the auditors got on their trail. Then he disowned them. The Prime Minister’s office went into overdrive, generating thousands of emails in a cover-up designed to insulate the office and the Prime Minister from any responsibility for any aspect of the Senate scandal.

These issues – what the Prime Minister knew, when he knew it and what he did about it – are central to the trial. As it begins, watch Duffy. When this all began, he wanted to save his job and protect his reputation. He still wants to do that, but his focus has shifted. He is angry and bitter. His priority now is nothing less than to bring down Stephen Harper and his government.

The trial may start slowly, but it could turn nasty very quickly.

The Sunshine List is all breadth and no depth

Published Apr. 1, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Did you know that the Region of Waterloo’s chief administrative officer, Michael Murray, made $263,355.12 last year?

We know this thanks to the Public Sector Salary Disclosure — more commonly known as the Sunshine List — which provides a yearly financial picture of the province’s highest public sector earners.

Unfortunately, the list cannot tell us much else and leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions about value and efficiency.

The annual Sunshine List is the result of the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, legislation brought forward by the Mike Harris government in 1996.

The act requires that organizations receiving public funding from the Province of Ontario disclose the names, positions, salaries and taxable benefits of employees who are paid annual salaries of $100,000 or more. Currently, this legislation applies to the Government of Ontario, Crown agencies, municipalities, hospitals, public health and school boards, universities, colleges, Hydro One, Ontario Power Generation, and other public sector employers who receive a significant level of funding from the province.

Read more…

Canada needs a leader with a bold vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget Robert Munsch, kindergartners need skills training

Published Mar. 21, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Recently, the government of Ontario announced that it would be asking employers and industry groups to participate in a process designed to transform how universities are funded and operated in Ontario.

In many ways, this announcement is unsurprising in that it is simply the latest development in a long-term trend toward pushing universities to become places that focus more strongly on training students to meet the needs of the Canadian economy.

Universities, according to this vision, need to become sophisticated versions of community colleges, providing students with high-end skills and training to meet the current and future demands of the marketplace.

Predictably, this recent announcement has generated considerable opposition and disgust among my academic colleagues. I, on the other hand, applaud the government for taking this bold and visionary stance in provincial education policy.

Read more…

Appeal to politics of fear worked for Netanyahu

Published Mar. 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

The Israeli election results are yet another reminder of what travails can be produced by a proportional representation voting system in complicating the democratic process.

Even with a minimum threshold of 3.25 per cent support to gain representation, Tuesday’s election produced 10 legislative parties in the new Knesset (Israel’s parliament), none of which receive more than 25 per cent of the vote. This means the task of forming a government requires cobbling together a deal among a wide range of prospective coalition partners, each with their own demands and agendas, which are frequently incompatible with other parties.

For example, a secular party like Yesh Atid has demands that are incompatible with the different Jewish religious parties (Ashkenazi and Sephardic). There is also a party that appeals to Russian immigrant voters, a party to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and one to the left of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union (formerly Labour), not to mention a newly aggregated bloc of Arab parties that would prefer to see the Jewish state disappear.

Read more.

Terror bill creates havoc in Harperland

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is opportunity knocking at Trudeau’s door?

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

Justin Trudeau has no policies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. PM, please think twice about five debates

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

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper

24 Sussex Drive

Ottawa, Ontario

My very dear Prime Minister:

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

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

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

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

Five!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your faithful lickspittle,

etc., etc.

Israel-U.S. ties strong despite leaders’ friction

Published Feb. 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Much has been made of the personal animosity between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the two men clearly have had differences and don’t play well together.

However, even if we assume the invitation to the Israeli leader by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on March 3 — bypassing the president and the U.S. State Department — was a bush league stunt used for partisan advantage, the long-term implications of it are minimal.

American support for Israel in its conflicts with the Arab world was not always as automatic as in recent times. That support grew over the years in the face of Palestinian alignment with the Soviet Union during the days of the Cold War, and then the emergence of Islamic hostility to America, the West, and even modernity, among its extreme elements.

Read More. 

Anti-terrorism bill shows bad judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Senate gets its election marching orders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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