How will historians judge Harper’s reign?

Published July 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Stephen Harper has been prime minister since February 2006. They have been eventful years, but some day — if not next month or next year or a year or two after that — the Harper era will come to a close.

The prime minister may decide enough is enough and choose to retire while the cheers of his grateful party still resonate on Parliament Hill. Or he may lose an election (the next one is due in October 2015) and leave before he is pushed. Or he may stay too long and be pushed.

He may opt for a soft landing in boardroom Canada. Or he may do what other former leaders have done: lend their name to the letterhead of a big law firm to open doors for corporate clients — in other words, become a pricey lobbyist. Or he may hire a scribe to help him write his memoirs (and settle scores), as Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney have done and as Dalton McGuinty is doing now. Or Harper could hold his nose and appoint himself to the Senate of Canada, an institution that he may hold in low esteem, but which still pays a living wage with benefits and expenses.
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However it happens, the Harper years will end. When that happens, the Harper legacy file will be passed from the pundits, pollsters and political scientists to the historians. What will their verdict be?

Will they place him in the upper tier of prime ministers, with John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King and, perhaps, Robert Borden and Pierre Trudeau? Will they put him in the mid-range along with Mulroney (Airbus scandal aside) and Chrétien? Or will he find himself sharing the bottom shelf with the likes of John Diefenbaker?

His advocates will draw attention to his handling of the Canadian economy since the market meltdown of 2008. True, Canada weathered the storm better than most, and no Canadian banks collapsed, but how much of that survival was due to the wise stewardship of the Harper government and how much was due to laws and regulations put in place by previous administrations? That’s a question for the historians to ponder. They may note that the Canadian economy has not rebounded as quickly as the Americans’, that the country is still bleeding manufacturing jobs, and that the national unemployment rate remains unacceptably high. They may or may not be impressed by the various iterations of Harper’s “economic action plan.”

Their verdict of the Harper government’s performance on the world stage is likely to be more definitive. Canada lost more than a seat on the UN Security Council; on Harper’s watch, it has lost influence everywhere, most notably in the Middle East where, since the days of Lester Pearson, Canada had played a significant role. Foreign Minister John Baird’s hectoring tone is more irritating than effective. Harper’s little punch-up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be good politics domestically (although I doubt that), but it is silly and irrelevant internationally.

At home, historians may observe that the political atmosphere has changed for the worse on Harper’s watch. Confrontation has replaced co-operation on many fronts. This is a government that picks fights with the courts, the opposition and even the Senate. It no longer holds first ministers’ meetings with the provinces; Harper either doesn’t respect the premiers or want to share a national stage with them, or he doesn’t think he needs their support for most things he wants to do.

He tried to get away with disenfranchising thousands of voters with his ill-named Fair Elections Act. His administration thinks it can somehow make prostitution go away, no matter what the courts and the Charter may say. Sometimes his ministers seem more incompetent than arrogant. They can’t figure out how to bring competition to the wireless sector. They can’t organize a proper, open procedure for the purchase of new aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Historians may be less than impressed.

Does Canada really need fighter jets?

Published June 30, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Canada does not need fighter aircraft! Buying them would waste upward of $45-billion.” – C.R. (Buzz) Nixon, former deputy minister of national defence, letter to the Globe and Mail, June 27, 2014.

Someone in the addled world of Ottawa should pay heed to Buzz Nixon. He knows whereof he speaks, having been the deputy defence minister the last time the government went shopping for fighter aircraft. It was on Nixon’s watch that the government of the day (Trudeau Liberal) decided in 1977 that it had to replace Canada’s aging war planes — the single-engine CF-104 Starfighter, based in Europe with NATO (and known among pilots, unfondly, as “The Widowmaker”) and the twin-engine CF-101 Voodoo, based in Canada and assigned to continental defence under the NORAD umbrella.

The policy-makers of Nixon’s day wanted several things. They wanted one aircraft to replace both the Starfighter and the Voodoo; that would help to keep the price and operating costs down. They wanted an off-the-shelf model with proven capability. They wanted an aircraft with two engines for the sake of reliability and pilot safety on long-distance patrols across the North and over the oceans off our coasts.
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With a budget of roughly $2.4 billion, Nixon’s people went shopping for 130 to 150 new fighters. They organized a competition. Six aircraft makers from the United States and Europe made pitches, offering a total of seven models. By 1978 (things moved more quickly in those days), the government had a short list of three aircraft from which it selected the McDonnell Douglas Hornet, which became the CF-18. It ended up buying 138 of them for $4 billion (prices in the military sector have a quicksilver quality); that works out to about $9 billion in today’s dollars.

Fast forward a generation. The CF-18, which proved to be an excellent choice, is nearing the end of its service life. Since it came to office in 2006, the Harper government has been stewing over a replacement.

It doesn’t know what it wants. Not having a thought-out defence policy, it doesn’t know what sort of military aircraft Canada may need for the future. It doesn’t even know, as Buzz Nixon suggests, whether Canada needs fighter aircraft at all.

Common sense suggests that the policy come first, then a determination of the need — if any — for fighter aircraft, then a competition be held to select the aircraft that would best serve the policy objectives. Not knowing their own mind, the Harper Conservatives listened to all the vested interests who whispered (or shouted) into their ear that Canada not only needed new fighter aircraft, but it needed the most sophisticated and expensive warplane in history.

That would be the F-35 Lightning, a single-engine stealth fighter by Lockheed Martin in the United States. It was the choice of the U.S. administration and of what former president Dwight Eisenhower once denounced as the powerful “military-industrial complex” in that in country, which also operates as a potent lobby in Canada.

The Harper government listened and agreed to buy 65 F-35s for a price that it told Canadians would be $16 billion. There were two problems. At the time, the F-35 did not yet exist; the evolution from artist’s concept to fighting machine would be fraught with delays, production problems, performance issues — and wild price inflation (to $45 billion in Buzz Nixon’s informed estimate).

Two years ago, the Tories ordered a review of its F-35 commitment. That review apparently led right back to the F-35, without any competition to confirm the wisdom of the choice. It was reported last week, however, that the prime minister has removed the fighter aircraft decision from the cabinet agenda in order to give ministers more time to digest information and to think about it.

Theirs could be a watershed decision for the country, especially if they address two fundamental questions. First, does Canada really need fighter aircraft? Second, aren’t there much better uses for $45 billion?

PM owes chief justice an apology

Published May 5, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record

You might think that anyone who has spent many years observing politicians would not be surprised by anything they do or say. But you would be wrong.

Never — not since my first days in the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1965 — have I encountered anything quite as appalling as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s attack on Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Everyone knows that this prime minister plays by his own hardball rules. He insists on winning. He has a mean streak, a vindictive side, when he does not get his own way.

He does not hesitate to throw people under the bus, as he did to his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, whose only sin was an excessive loyalty that led him to try to extricate the PM from the Senate expenses scandal. Harper also did the bus thing to once-loyal Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin.
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These three, and there are others (Dimitri Soudas comes to mind), were political appointees. They accepted the prime minister’s favour, surely knowing that his favour might not last. Harper made them, and it was his prerogative to unmake them. It’s not nice; it’s not pretty, but it’s within the rules of the political game.

But it is not within the rules for the prime minister to act like a schoolyard bully, by using the platform of his office to beat up public servants, of whom the chief justice is the most recent. Unlike Wright, Duffy, Wallin and Soudas, these public servants are not part of the political power complex that surrounds the PM. They are public servants in the true sense of the term. They serve all Canadians, regardless of who happens to be in power. And they cannot defend themselves from partisan attack the way political appointees can.

These victims include the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; chief statistician; parliamentary budget officer; head of the Military Police Complaints Commission; chief electoral officer; and former auditor general Sheila Fraser. Last week, Harper expanded his enemies’ list to include the chief justice and, by extension, the entire Supreme Court of Canada, a majority of whose members he himself appointed.

That Harper is furious with the court is no secret. In a series of high-profile decisions, the court has ruled that the government must abide by its own laws and by the Constitution of Canada, whether the issue is a package of tough-on-crime measures or reform of the Senate. Parliament has the option of enacting new laws or amending the Constitution. Until it does so, the government must live with what it has.

Chief Justice McLachlin stands accused, spuriously, by the prime minister of attempting to interfere in a case before the court. The issue was the nomination of Federal Court Justice Marc Nadon to fill a Quebec vacancy on the Supreme Court. In the normal course, a parliamentary committee that was screening a short list of candidates asked McLachlin about the needs of her court.

There are special constitutional rules for the selection of judges from Quebec, and McLachlin knew that judges of the Federal Court did not come within the rules. She felt compelled to alert her political “boss,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay. MacKay, who may or may not have understood her alert, told her to call the prime minister, which she decided not to do.

Yet Harper accuses her of trying to influence him in a case that was before the court. If the allegation were true, she might have to resign as chief justice. But it’s not true. This all transpired months before Harper selected Nadon and even longer before there was any challenge to his appointment. Eventually, a challenge did make its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-1 that Nadon was ineligible.

The prime minister owes the chief justice a profuse apology for impugning her integrity. But she should not hold her breath waiting for it.

In politics, avoid the ‘conventional wisdom’

Published Apr. 28, 2014, in The Guelph Mercury and Waterloo Region Record.

Today, here are five useful rules to help skeptical citizens to navigate the maze of politics.

First rule: don’t trust promises made by politicians — that’s just common sense. Second rule: don’t believe anything you find on a political party website — at its best, it will be balderdash. Third rule: don’t fool around with politicians via social media — you will never escape from their fundraising embrace. Fourth rule: when a political leader warns you that the sky will fall if you don’t vote for him or her, don’t be conned — put the warning to the test.

Fifth rule: mistrust conventional wisdom in politics. Here are two examples; Senate reform, and the prospect of a provincial election in Ontario this spring.
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According to conventional wisdom, the Supreme Court of Canada dealt the Harper government a body blow on Friday when it gave the back of its hand, unanimously, to the Conservatives’ reference on the Senate. “Supreme Court thwarts Harper’s Senate ambitions,” read the front-page banner in the Globe and Mail. “PM says court ruling means Senate reform ‘off the table,’” said the Waterloo Region Record.

My own sense, as a skeptical citizen, is that if Harper ever had “ambitions” for the upper house — and perhaps he did in the old days when he was still policy-wonking for the Reform party — he abandoned them once he became Conservative leader. Senate reform was a useful light to keep in the Tory window for the reassurance of old Reformers, but it was never “on the table” as Harper government policy.

As PM, he made a couple gestures by proposing term limits and “consultative” elections, but he never invested the political capital needed to turn these tweaks into law. He had to know when he sent his reference to the Supreme Court what the answer would be: Ottawa can’t mess around with the Senate; significant changes would require constitutional amendments; and that means gaining the support of the provinces (all of the provinces in the case of abolishing the Senate).

I suspect Harper was one of the most relieved people in Ottawa when the court told him, No. It gave him cover to abandon the field of Senate reform (he could say he tried, but the Supremes wouldn’t let him; naughty judges!), which means no constitutional conferences and no tedious negotiations with provincial premiers over the future of an institution for which most Canadians don’t give a tinker’s damn.

As to a provincial election in Ontario, conventional wisdom says it is going to happen this spring. Why? Because Kathleen Wynne’s minority Liberal government is in trouble. Because it is unable to get traction to escape from the aura, and odour, of the Dalton McGuinty-era Liberal scandals. Because the opposition parties want an election (at least Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives do). And because the pundits say Ontario needs an election.

The Liberals are to bring down their 2014 budget on Thursday. That, according to conventional wisdom, will lead to an election.

Maybe that is the way it will play out, but I wonder. Provincial politicians, like federal ones, live and die by opinion polls. Right now, the polls are clear as mud. A spring election might be in no one’s interest. Instead of one winner, it could produce three losers. No party seems to have enough support to improve its position in the legislature.

The NDP is the critical player, as it has been for the past year or so. The only thing that seems clear from the polls is that Andrea Horwath’s party has lost the momentum it gained following the last election, in October 2011. The New Democrats are standing at 22 or 23 per cent in the polls, which is exactly where they were in the 2011 election.

Why would Horwath, who wields the balance of power, want to risk a spring election that she couldn’t win but could lose badly. The answer: she wouldn’t, unless to protect her leadership against impatient rivals.

The elephant in the Conservatives’ closet

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

The Senate expenses scandal may seem to be in abeyance. It no longer dominates question period in Parliament, leads the TV news or makes newspaper front pages on a daily basis.  But the scandal is far from over; it is destined to bite the Conservative government again before the election in October next year.

This elephant in the Tory closet was on display on the weekend when CBC-TV’s fifth estate program aired a documentary called “The Rise and Fall of Mike Duffy.” It brought back many questions.

Why did the Harper Conservatives decide to turn “Old Duff,” a popular and likeable television news host, into a Tory shill (one who soon developed a taste for $3,000 suits)? Why did the government tell Duffy it was okay to accept a Prince Edward Island Senate seat when he actually lived in Ottawa and had for decades? Why did Duffy claim $90,000 in expenses for living in his own home in Ottawa? Why did the Senate agree to let him claim them?

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Why did the Prime Minister’s Office make such strenuous efforts to cover up the affair instead of letting Duffy dig his own way out of the mess? Why did it (up to the PM himself, allegedly) agree to allow the Conservative party to buy Duffy’s silence by paying his expense debt (then believed to be only $32,000)? Is it credible that Harper was not aware of what a number of others in the PMO clearly did know: that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had personally put up $90,000 in hush money in a failed attempt to make the scandal go away?

Why, when this came out and Wright resigned, did Harper initially express much regret and praise for Wright, only to turn around and declare that Wright was a scoundrel who had deceived him? Is  it possible that someone, a lawyer maybe, advised the PM  that if what Wright and Duffy had done was illegal (offering and accepting a bribe, perhaps), then Harper might be seen as an accomplice to the crime – an accusation that could end his political career if he did not quickly distance himself from the pair?

In monetary terms, the Senate scandal is relatively small potatoes. It cannot compete in dollars with the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal of a dozen years ago, or the more recent scandals in Ontario over Ornge ambulance or the costly relocation of hydro plants.

But the Senate affair matters for at least three reasons. First, because the clumsy cover-up has left so many questions unanswered. Second, because the Senate scandal, like the Airbus scandal of the Mulroney era, reaches into the highest office of the land where it raises grave issues of ethics, integrity and accountability. Third, with so many investigators poking around (Senate-appointed auditors, the Auditor General of Canada, and the RCMP), the affair is bound to make news for many months to come. And if Nigel Wright, who has been silent to date, has an opportunity to tell his story, he has the potential to blow the cover off the cover-up.

There’s another issue, a very political one that is beyond the reach of the various investigations. It’s the way the government works these days. Retired Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray, who served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet and has had more experience inside the corridors of power than just about anyone else, was interviewed by Linden MacIntyre on that fifth estate program the other day. Murray (who is no fan of Stephen Harper) talked about the “instinct to control everything” at the centre, in the Prime Minister’s Office.

No matter how hard he may try, no prime minister can control everything in a modern government. Some things are bound to get away. Harper could have left the Senate expenses mess to the upper house and its members to deal with. But he had to try to control it, and it got away. A lesson learned?

Trudeau’s Liberals have their eye on gold

Published Feb. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There’s a theory that political junkies and sports fanatics are products of the same gene pool. As a broad generality, serious political fans are often serious sports fans, as well. It’s something about the game, the thrill of competition, the risk of failure and success, and the uncertainty of the outcome until the last second ticks away or the last ballot is counted.

For all I know, there may be some learned academic treatises on this sports/politics relationship, but if there are, I haven’t seen them. All I know, after too many years misspent while hanging around politicians and their gatherings, is that when they are not talking politics, they are frequently talking sports. (“Did you see that overtime goal?” “Why can’t the Jays land a starting pitcher?”)

So today let’s try a quick quiz to see if we can separate the sports nuts from the political groupies. How many of you got up early (very early west of Ontario) to watch the gold medal hockey game between Sweden and Canada in Sochi on Sunday? And how many of you remained glued to the final proceedings of the biennial convention in Montreal of the Liberal party of Canada? (That’s the party that, after disappointing with bronze in the 2011 electoral contest, is an early favourite for gold next time, in 2015.)

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It will take our scrutineers a few minutes to tally the votes, so let’s press ahead on the hypothesis that more Canadians are seized with the political games than the Olympic Games. You do agree, don’t you?

That said, it must also be said that the Montreal convention will not go down as one of the more stimulating political gatherings in history. I’ve never experienced a national political gathering when the moving expenses of a candidate for Parliament (retired General Andrew Leslie) was seen as a burning issue. Montreal was a singularly quiet convention. Even the Conservatives’ plans to disrupt the convention (if that was their intention) came to naught.

A quiet convention suited the Liberals just fine. Delegates had an opportunity to see, hear and evaluate their new leader, Justin Trudeau. Most seemed to like what they saw. His big speech on Saturday was warm and fuzzy. Although he invoked the memory of his father, Justin is no Pierre. I couldn’t help but think back to his father’s electrifying speech in April 1968 to the Liberal leadership convention in Ottawa.

But where Trudeau the Elder promised Canadians a “Just Society,” Trudeau the Younger settled for a more modest rhetoric. He promised all Canadians “a fair shot at success.” As poetry, it may fall short, but times change. When Pierre spoke in 1968, the Liberals were in power and were looking for a new leader to give it a shot of adrenalin to keep them there. Pierre did that. In 2014, Justin’s Liberals, although performing well in recent polls, are still a third-place party.

He has to overcome not one, but two, formidable opponents. In Stephen Harper, the Conservatives have a leader who has all the advantages and levers of power. He is resourceful, well-financed and determined, with a mean streak a yard wide (as his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, might attest). To get to Harper and the Tories, Justin Trudeau has to climb over Thomas Mulcair and the NDP. Opposition leader Mulcair is determined, too, and absolutely relentless, as he demonstrated in Parliament when he dismantled government evasions in the Senate expense scandal. While the Conservatives may have grown tired in government, Mulcair’s NDP is still vigorous in opposition.

There won’t be many easy seats for any party in October 2015. It shapes up as a riding-by-riding, take-no-prisoners battle where small mistakes can cause big very damage. It will be particularly difficult for the Liberals as they try to move from third to first, from bronze to gold. But, like Canada’s women’s and men’s hockey teams in Sochi, they can already smell the podium.

Politicians face tough times too

Published Feb. 18, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury.

Anyone who harbours the delusion that politicians lead a soft existence might take a look at the dilemmas that some leading political figures are facing.

Let’s start with Quebec where Premier Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois, clinging to a weak minority since September 2012 — and having procrastinated as long as possible — will bring down a budget on Thursday. The budget is widely expected to open the door to a general election this spring. That would be a real gamble. When Marois won in 2012, she did so with just 32 per cent of the popular vote, down three per cent from the previous election, when the PQ lost to the Liberals. But the way the vote split in 2012, she actually gained seven seats, to 54 in the 125-seat National Assembly.

While recent polls suggest Marois is within reach of a majority, if she falls short — if she loses or returns with a second minority — her leadership days would surely be over. But if she gets her majority, life will not be so comfortable in Ottawa. Quebec would be back on the national agenda.

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Let’s move on to Ontario, skipping lightly over Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford will continue to be a national embarrassment until the people throw him out next fall. At Queen’s Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne and her minority Liberals are in trouble as all signs point to an Ontario election this spring.

Unable to shed the baggage of the Dalton McGuinty years, she has lost whatever momentum she enjoyed in the early months of her leadership. She has failed to demonstrate that she leads a party with new ideas and new priorities. Her government has become almost indistinguishable from the McGuinty Liberals who led the province for a decade, growing old and tired (and careless) in the process.

No one expected Wynne to win two byelections last week, in Niagara Falls and Thornhill, and the Liberals did run poorly in both, including Niagara Falls, a former Liberal seat. Tory leader Tim Hudak saved a bit of face by hanging onto Thornhill in suburban Toronto, but NDP leader Andrea Horwath emerged as the only winner by capturing blue-collar Niagara Falls.

Now — lest anyone think it is only politicians in power who confront dilemmas — Horwath, the leader of the third party, has to decide whether she will continue to prop up the minority Liberals or to force an election that she almost certainly can’t win. Another Liberal minority would be one outcome — so no change. A second outcome, even worse from the NDP perspective (but possible, the polls say) would be the election of a right-wing Conservative government headed by Hudak, a mini-Mike Harris. Howarth will be stewing over that dilemma until the Queen’s Park budget comes down.

In Ottawa, Stephen Harper doesn’t have to fret about an election just now, but he does have worries. After 20 years in politics, 10 as Conservative leader and eight as prime minister, he finds himself leading a government that has grown old, tired and increasingly arrogant. It is going the way of the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government of three decades ago. And it seems at times unable to cope, incapable of making decisions on such practical issues as the ordering of military hardware — search-and-rescue aircraft, new fighter jets, Arctic patrol ships, an icebreaker, naval resupply ships and maritime helicopters.

It tabled a budget last week that landed with a dull thump, destined to be remembered only for the rift it exposed within the cabinet and caucus over family income-splitting for tax purposes.

Worse, a new poll last week had some terrible numbers for the Tories. Nanos Research reported that 55 per cent of Canadians would not consider voting Conservative. The 36 per cent who said, yes, they would consider voting Tory, left the Harper party well behind the leading Liberals and the NDP, although still ahead of the Green party’s 27 per cent.

There are tough times looming for Harper, too.

Harper’s Mideast trip promotes ‘strong and decisive’ image

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

If you ask people who run political campaigns at the highest levels, they will tell you that one of their essential tools is a plan.

The leader must be able to declare to voters: “Elect me and this is what I will do. Guaranteed.” The plan doesn’t have to be elaborate or detailed — simpler is better — but campaign strategists say electors are more inclined to support a party with a plan, even if they don’t agree with much of it, over a party that grapples with subtleties and complexities and lacks a clear vision. In other words, black and white works; grey doesn’t.

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I’m wending my way to Stephen Harper and Israel. But, first, some other examples. Brian Mulroney won the 1988 federal election by promising free trade with the United States. That policy was not popular, according to polls, and most voters probably had, at best, only a vague idea of what free trade might entail, but they voted for Mulroney and free trade in preference to whatever it was John Turner and the Liberals were offering (who remembers?).

In 1993, Jean Chrétien stumped the country waving his “Red Book” of Liberal commitments. The contents of the book — a mystery to even many Liberals — didn’t matter. The fact of the book and the image of the plan it represented carried Chrétien to a majority government.

To work, a plan needs to seem to be simple and clear. Then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion confused everyone, including his own followers, in the 2008 election with his environmental “green shift.” Earlier, in 1974, Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield promised to combat inflation with a temporary wage and price freeze, but the Tories could never really explain how their controls would work. Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals laughed them off the hustings — “Zap! You’re frozen!” Trudeau cried.

Trudeau himself had come to power six years earlier by stumping the country promising to make Canada a “Just Society.” Whatever that slogan meant, it seemed clear enough to voters, and powerful, and Trudeau won in a walk. A triumph for black and white politics.

This brings us, circuitously, to Prime Minister Harper and the Middle East. When Harper played his Israel card last week, there was no grey area, no qualifications, no discreet reservations as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conferred best-friend status on each other. Middle East politics is incredibly complex and in the years (pre-Harper) when Canada had a measure of influence there, Canadian diplomats did their best to pick their way through the minefield of conflicting Arab-Israeli interests.

No longer. In the Harper era, Israel is good. Israel is a democracy surrounded by enemies. Canada stands four-square with Israel. Let others worry those Israeli settlements. Let someone else come up with a peace plan. Canada has Israel’s back.

Harper’s professions of friendship seem to be sincere. He probably believes most or all what he said in Israel. But his real audience was here not ever there. The Conservatives are in trouble in the polls. They are running 10 to 12 points below their election 2011 level, keeping their heads above the NDP but trailing the Liberals by about six points. Harper’s personal approval has been sliding throughout the Senate expense scandal.

The Jewish vote is one of his party’s better hopes. As in the 2011 election, Conservatives will be targeting a half-dozen ridings in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg where the Jewish vote could be decisive. According to exit polls, 53 per cent of the Jewish vote, so long in the Liberal fold, went Tory in 2011. They’d like to make that percentage even higher in 2015.

Last week has to help. Harper had a very good week. His visit will not have any lasting influence in the Middle East. But he shone among friends in Israel. He looked strong and decisive. And his message contained a clear, simple plan everyone could understand: unconditional support for Israel.

PM needs advisors who can ‘see around corners’

Published Jan. 20, 2014, in the Guelph Mercury. 

If the Harper government has any sense, it will withdraw the nomination of Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada, then, after a discreet interval of two or three months, offer him a consolation prize.

Perhaps a diplomatic appointment as ambassador to Portugal or Denmark or Ireland, or some other posting that offers prestige without any heavy lifting.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Peter MacKay could go back to his lists of qualified Quebec jurists to find a candidate whose nomination would not put the Supreme Court in the embarrassing position of having to pass judgment on a putative colleague. A nomination that would not create a constitutional issue. A nomination that would not anger the Quebec government or hand the minority Parti Québécois administration an issue with which to bash Ottawa in the next provincial election. A nomination that could be defended by court-watchers as being more than an effort to pack the Supreme Court with conservative judges.

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MacKay will not find Judge Nadon’s name on any of those lists. As McGill University law professor Robert Leckey puts it, “Nadon was on nobody’s short list — he wasn’t on anybody’s long list as far as I know.”

This is not to say Judge Nadon was not a capable jurist in his years on the Federal Court of Appeal. But he was an improbable choice — so improbable that it should have raised warning flags in the Prime Minister’s Office. For starters, at 64, he was already on the downward slope of his judicial career. Two years ago, he took advantage of a cozy arrangement to move into semi-retirement as a supernumerary judge on the Federal Court — an arrangement that enabled him to cut his workload in half while retaining his full salary ($288,100 a year).

A supernumerary judge had never been named to the Supreme Court before, so why would Harper choose a judge who clearly wanted to work less to fill a seat in which he would have to work harder than he had ever worked before? And why would he pick a judge from the Federal Court in Ottawa to fill one of the three Quebec seats on the Supreme Court?

Traditionally, those Quebec seats have gone to judges who are either serving on the Quebec Superior Court or are active members of the Quebec bar. It remains unclear following last week’s hearing at the Supreme Court whether Federal Court judges are actually eligible for the Quebec seats; the Supremes will have to sort that one out as they ponder their uncomfortable decision. (My hunch is they will conclude that Federal Court members are, in fact, eligible, but that won’t change the perception that Nadon is an Ottawa judge who is out of touch with Quebec civil law.)

So why did the Harper government make such an improbable choice? The reason, it appears, is that Harper really liked the stand that Justice Nadon took in his Federal Court dissent in the case of Omar Khadr, the child soldier. Nadon supported the government’s argument that it was not obligated under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to seek Khadr’s repatriation from United States custody.

Diminishing the importance of the Charter is an element in the Harper government’s justice strategy, and Nadon may have seemed like a safer, more sympathetic jurist than Harper’s five earlier appointees who have shown a distressing (to Conservatives) tendency to independent thinking on such issues as prostitution laws and safe drug injection sites.

The problem in the Nadon case, as in such high-profile affairs as the Senate expenses coverup, is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the PMO who has the ability, as they say, “to see around corners.” That is, to anticipate that, if the PM does X, then Y and Z must surely follow. The prime minister has surrounded himself with people with tunnel vision. They don’t even notice the corners as they charge straight off the cliff.

Reform movement lacks leader, but gaining traction

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

Reform is in the air on Parliament Hill. It’s a very gentle breeze, still quite tentative, but veteran Hill watchers can feel it as it wafts through the party caucuses.

True, it has not yet had any noticeable effect on the Harper administration — still in scandal lockdown mode — but an increasing number of Conservative backbenchers are actually starting to entertain the notion that, just maybe, there are better ways to do things.

The reform movement does not have a leader, as such. However, it does have public advocates, the two most prominent being Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green party, and Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills and a former Harper cabinet minister. Both have proposed reforms that have generated interest and support across party lines.

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Leader of a caucus with just two members (herself and former New Democrat Bruce Hyer), May has no real power, but she does have influence on progressive issues and she commands respect as one of the hardest-working MPs in Ottawa (she gets 400,000 letters and email a year). She wants to redress the balance — or imbalance — of power on Parliament Hill by reducing the iron control of the prime minister and the unelected officials in his office and by increasing the opportunities of ordinary MPs to question and to oppose.

The Harper administration tried to silence her last fall by introducing a seemingly innocuous procedural change. Until then, independent MPs, like May, were able to move amendments to government bills and the Commons would debate and vote on them. Now, however, May and other independents must first submit their amendments to a parliamentary committee. The committees, of course, are tightly controlled by government majorities. It means that instead of being able to bring an issue for debate and a vote in the Commons, May sees her causes being killed off by Tories in committee rooms.

May thinks the state of Canada’s democracy should be a ballot-box issue in the 2015 election. “People have died for us to live in a democracy and we are letting democracy slip through our fingers,” she says. The crowds she addresses on her travels across the country enthusiastically applaud her message, even if it hasn’t penetrated the stone walls of the Langevin Block. Not yet, anyway.

While May focuses on the power imbalance between the ministry and parliamentarians, Michael Chong is approaching the same broad issue from a slightly different perspective. Last month, he introduced a private member’s bill, a reform act, that would shift power away from party leaders and toward ordinary MPs, party caucuses and local riding associations.

For example, leaders would no longer to be able to appoint election candidates without the blessing of local associations; caucuses would be given decision-making powers and party leaders would be made more accountable to their caucuses. The caucuses would not be able to directly replace the leader, but they would be empowered to trigger a leadership review.

A petition signed by 15 per cent of a party’s MPs would prompt a secret caucus ballot on the leadership. If a majority voted in favour of changing the leader, a second secret ballot would be held immediately to choose an interim leader to serve until the party could elect a new permanent leader.

Although Chong’s bill has not been met with glad cries of welcome from the PMO, nor has it suffered outright rejection. It has attracted support from an estimated 40 Conservative backbenchers, many of them chafing under the constraints of the PMO. Former Tory prime minister Joe Clark, at the urging of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Paul Heinbecker, a former United Nations ambassador, has endorsed the bill, as, of course, has Elizabeth May. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appears to be on side and it looks as though NDP members will have a free vote.

In a genuinely free vote, Commons-wide, the bill would pass and the breeze of reform would become a stiff wind.

Canada losing a senator of principle

Published Dec. 16, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

The resignation of Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal to become the new master of Massey College in Toronto in June is great news for the college and gloomy news for the Senate. But it is probably welcome news for the Prime Minister’s Office, which could not figure out what to do with a senator — and a Tory to boot — whom it could not bend to its will.

Segal has many estimable qualities. He is firmly principled, as he demonstrated early on by his civil liberties opposition to the use of the War Measures Act by Pierre Trudeau’s government. He demonstrated his independence again recently when he stood against the power of the prime minister and the pressure of his Senate colleagues to oppose the suspensions of Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau in the Senate expenses affair. For Segal, it was partly a question of loyalty to his friend, Wallin, but more importantly it was a matter of principle. As he saw it, the three were being cast out of Parliament without due process:

“(This) trashes the presumption of innocence, and may, if passed, be interfering in what are supposed to be independent police investigations. I support my prime minister on economic, trade, defence and foreign policy — but cannot support the government leader in the Senate on this motion. I will vote against it.” And he did.

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A disclaimer: I have known Hugh Segal off and on for four decades. I have always liked him and admired his Red Tory independence, his high intelligence (he has the academic honours to prove it), his knowledge of the entrails of government (as chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, he ran the PMO in the 1990s; earlier he was a deputy minister in Premier Bill Davis’s office at Queen’s Park), his happy-warrior demeanour and his wit (alas, a sense of humour is not a prerequisite for government service in Ottawa; Massey College students will surely appreciate him).

I first came across him when I was covering the 1972 federal election and Segal, then a 21-year-old University of Ottawa student, was the Progressive Conservative candidate (or sacrificial lamb) in the Liberal fief of Ottawa Centre. He lost, but he made it close in a very tight national election. Twenty-six years later, he ran for the Tory leadership, losing to Joe Clark (on Clark’s second time around).

Over the years, the peripatetic Segal has held executive jobs in the advertising, brewing, and financial services industries, written books and columns, taught university and served as president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

In 2005, prime minister Paul Martin, a Liberal, reached across party lines to appoint the eminently qualified Segal to the Senate. He is leaving at age 63, nearly 12 years before he reaches mandatory retirement. He is leaving without seeing through his campaign for Senate reform. Shortly after his appointment to the upper house, Segal introduced a motion calling for a Canada-wide referendum on abolition of the Senate — not because he wanted to shutter the place, but because he wanted to kick start the process of reform by involving the public in discussion of the role of the red chamber.

Although no one who mattered in Ottawa paid any attention at the time, Segal tried again in 2007 and 2008. In 2010, he supported a bill to would have allowed provinces to hold direct elections to fill Senate vacancies in their jurisdictions. Again nothing happened, although this year the Harper government referred a package of reform initiatives to the Supreme Court of Canada to test their constitutionality.

Meanwhile, Segal will enjoy the leisurely (even by Senate standards) pace of life at Massey College where (another disclaimer) my old friend, former Globe and Mail colleague and occasional tennis partner, John Fraser, is retiring after nearly 20 years as master. Fraser has done a fine job building a community of scholars as envisaged by Massey’s first master, the novelist Robertson Davies.

NDP’s lack of traction puzzles pundits

Published Dec. 2, 2013, in The Guelph Mercury.

The chattering classes are puzzled. They can’t figure out what is happening in federal politics these days.

Perhaps I should explain. The term “chattering classes” was coined by the late Auberon Waugh — the acidic British writer with a talent for vituperation — and is applied, usually with a sneer, to that universe of pundits, commentators, political operatives and academics who venture to express views — from the left or right (it doesn’t matter which) — on matters of political import.

The chatterers are not used to being confused. They see NDP leader Thomas Mulcair performing brilliantly in the Commons on the Senate expenses scandal; he makes Prime Minister Stephen Harper look like a schoolboy caught stealing nickels from the church collection plate. They think Mulcair and his party should be reaping a reward in the polls.

But, no. NDP support, while solid, seems stuck, a few points below their 2011 election level.

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Instead, the reward is going to the Liberals, who have not earned it. The performance of their new leader, Justin Trudeau, has been unsteady at best. Yet the Liberals enjoy a lead of six to 10 points in some polls, enough to elect a minority government in 2015. It’s as though voters who want to get rid of the Harper Conservatives have concluded that the Liberals, although in third place in Parliament, offer the best chance of achieving that goal.

That the Conservatives are in deep doo-doo is a virtual given in the chattering class. A rising chorus of pundits, some of them normally of conservative ilk, is calling on the prime minister to resign before he drives his party off the cliff — and while he can still rescue his legacy.

Harper is likely to ignore that advice, whether it come from pundits or his own caucus. He’s pretty good at ignoring advice he doesn’t want to hear.

He’s been getting a lot of free advice in the wake of last week’s federal byelections. There were four of them and, when you get right down to it, nothing really happened. The Conservatives went in with two seats, both in Manitoba, and they came out with the same two. The Liberals held their two seats and the NDP was shut out. Yes, the Tories’ popular vote declined in all four ridings, but that is scarcely unusual in mid-term byelections.

The four byelections did not qualify as harbingers of change, although some byelections do. The NDP victory in the 2012 Kitchener-Waterloo provincial byelection effectively ended the regime of then premier Dalton McGuinty, just as John Tory’s loss in a 2009 byelection in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock ended his leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Back in 1989, there was a federal byelection in Beaver River in Alberta that was won by Deborah Grey. Her victory heralded the arrival of the Reform party on Parliament Hill.

In the harbinger game, it is hard to beat Oct. 16, 1978. The Pierre Trudeau Liberal government was in trouble. It had to call no fewer than 15 federal byelections. On Oct. 16, the opposition Progressive Conservatives won 10 of the seats, six of them from the Liberals, who managed to retain only two seats (both in Quebec). Seven months later, the Liberals were ousted, and Joe Clark was prime minister.

We are not likely to get any harbingers on that scale before the next election. I don’t look for any dramatic breakthroughs. Federal politics has become a game for grinders not Gretzkys. Partly on the basis of polls on the Senate scandal, my sense is that people are psychologically ready to move on from the Harper era. Whether it will be to Trudeau or Mulcair remains to be seen.

Or they may not move at all. The economy remains Harper’s ace in the hole. His Tories also have more money and a stronger organization than their opponents. They will make Harper a formidable campaigner once again. Assuming, of course, he ignores the chatter and decides to hang around.

Come election time, canadians will only care about the economy

Published Nov. 18, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

This may be difficult, but please try to forget — for just a moment — all that lurid Rob Ford news exploding out of Toronto city hall. Can you do that?

And try to forget about the ugly Senate expenses scandal with the unprecedented ouster of erstwhile celebrities Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. Stars no longer, they remain senators in name only.

Try to forget the Harper government’s attempt to persuade the Supreme Court of Canada that it actually has a viable prescription for Senate reform. It actually doesn’t. And try to forget Justin Trudeau’s ongoing demonstration that he is not yet ready for prime time. He sure isn’t.

Focus, instead, on Finance Minister Jim Flaherty who went out to Edmonton — the Commons was in recess and Alberta crowds are always friendly to Conservative ministers — to deliver his annual update on the economy last week. It was a happily upbeat message. All things considered, the economy is doing very nicely indeed. Jobless, underemployed and debt-laden Canadians might beg to differ, but the gnomes in Finance see the big picture.

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Thanks to the wise stewardship of the Harper Tories, the Great Recession is just about over. After a teeny deficit next year (smaller than Flaherty had anticipated), the economy will burst back into the promised land of surpluses; there will even be tax cuts. This will happen in fiscal 2015-16, the fiscal year in which, due to providence or good management, the federal election will take place, in October 2015.

It has been my contention for some time that the fate of the Conservative government is inextricably tied to the economy. If the economy is healthy — if Canadians feel they are no worse off than they were before the recession (or before Harper took office) and if they can see the economy is growing again — the Tories will get re-elected in 2015. If not, they won’t.

Peripheral issues will drop away. Canadians don’t like senators who fiddle their expenses, but they don’t really care a hoot about the institution. They’d be content if it went away (or were reformed) but they don’t value it enough to be worth a protracted battle with the provinces to change it.

Disgusting Rob Ford is simply a distraction who gives politics and politicians a bad name. Toronto will recover from being the laughing stock of American talk shows. Ford himself will go away, by resignation, removal or electoral defeat. He will not be mayor a year from now, and Toronto the Good will be good again.

Stephen Harper himself will become a peripheral issue, if the economy performs as Flaherty forecasts. Who really cares whether the prime minister is closed, arrogant, secretive, controlling or contemptuous of Parliament, if the sun has broken through after seven years of dark economic clouds for many Canadian families?

A good job with an adequate paycheque and the prospect of advancement, plus lower taxes, decent health care and opportunities for the children — what more could the average Canadian voter ask for in 2015?

That’s a question that could very well be facing both Liberal leader Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair as each battles to establish his party as the champion of the middle class. Four federal byelections are being held on Nov. 25, but they won’t tell us much.

Bourassa in Montreal and Toronto Centre are both Liberal seats and should stay that way, although the NDP is making serious noise in Toronto Centre. It looks as though the Manitoba seat of Brandon-Souris could slip from the Conservative to the Liberals, while Provencher, also in Manitoba, which was vacated by former cabinet minister Vic Toews, should stay Tory.

Meanwhile, Trudeau’s Liberals hold a lead nationally of about six points over the Conservatives in recent polls. That’s a lead that, as Liberals well know, could melt like ice cubes on a hot summer day if the Conservatives can take credit for a stronger, healthier, recovered economy in 2015.

 

Harper needs to keep voters focused on the economy

Published Oct. 15, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record

Parliament sits so infrequently — just 76 days so far this year — that we almost forget it exists, which, of course, may be what the Harper Conservatives have in mind.

In any event, the latest prorogation ends this week, and MPs will be back at their battle stations for the first time since June 21, impatient to see whether the Tories can pull a rabbit out of Governor General David Johnston’s top hat when he reads the Speech from the Throne on Wednesday.

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This throne speech will be exceptionally important. It will set the tone and direction of the government for the two remaining years of its mandate. It will reveal whether the Conservatives have the will to lift themselves out of the swamp of scandals, large and small, in which they have immersed themselves — among others, Senate expenses, robocalls, deliberate and systematic election overspending, assorted police investigations, patronage appointments gone wrong, contempt of Parliament, military procurement fiascos — and to do it in time to win a fourth term in October 2015. Perhaps even a second majority government?

My working hypothesis for some time has been that Stephen Harper will get re-elected if, first, the economy remains the pre-eminent issue in voters’ minds, and if, second, the government does not do something so stupid or wrong-headed as to cause Canadians to question its ability to manage the economy. Most voters, I think, do not much care if the Harper party is likable so long as it gets the job done.

That hypothesis is shifting a bit. Managing the economy is well and good, but managing it in whose interest? Under Harper, the Conservatives have earned a reputation as the party of business, of corporate, not consumer interests, of owners, not workers, of resource extraction, not protection of the environment. That reputation will not win the coveted fourth mandate.

There are some minor indications that the Tories are aware of their dilemma, at least on the consumer side. The government did try, albeit ineptly, to inject competition into the wireless sector. Now it is talking about doing what should have been done years ago — breaking the power of cable and satellite companies to force consumers to pay for TV channels they do not want in order to get the channels they do want. It’s called “pick and pay,” and it’s long overdue.

As welcome as such initiatives are, they do not make the Conservatives big players in the battle over the turf where the next election will be won or lost. That’s the middle class. The NDP under Thomas Mulcair, like Jack Layton before him, has worked hard to establish itself as the voice of middle-class Canadians. So has Justin Trudeau since his election as Liberal leader last April.

Deficit reduction is a worthy plank, but the Tories also need to demonstrate that they care about the hollowing out of the middle class, the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in a country with 1.3 million unemployed, a tax system that seems to exacerbate that gulf, the high cost of post-secondary education, the plight of young graduates trapped in minimum-wage jobs and the struggle of middle-aged people to meet the needs of elderly parents.

None of these concerns is new. What may be new is the pressure on the Conservatives, after seven years in office, to demonstrate that they understand the issues and have thoughtful policies to deal with them.

In another election in another year, Canadian voters might be moved by Canada’s decline in stature in the world in the Harper years: the loss of a seat on the UN Security Council; Harper’s refusal to address the General Assembly; and now the boycott of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting Sri Lanka.

Does anyone listen to Canada anymore? But the world seems very far away now, as attention shifts to the countdown to 2015.

A pocketbook election might normally favour the incumbent Conservatives, but maybe not this time.

Long pre-election phase portends a minority

Published Sep. 16, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Visitors to Ottawa can be excused for being bewildered these days. They arrive expecting to find a bustling, vibrant national capital, filled with eager politicians seized with the great issues of the moment. Instead, they find a Potemkin village, a cardboard capital in which, if you exclude a few groundskeepers and lunch-bound deputy ministers, nothing moves.

Where are all the elected members? Shouldn’t they be raising Cain and rushing off to emergency debates on chemical weapons in Syria, or the national debt, or Quebec’s charter of values, or the melting of the Arctic ice cap? Where are all the opposition leaders? Shouldn’t they be roasting the prime minister over a pyre of Senate expense reports?

Where are they? Well, they are back home (again). When they last met, in mid-June, they decided they deserved a proper summer holiday: 86 days. Then last week the prime minister, motivated solely by concern for members’ wellbeing, of course, decided they needed more R&R; so he prorogued Parliament (again) and extended the summer break by 34 days, for a total of 120 days. Even a university professor would be envious.
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MPs are now due to reassemble on Oct. 16. By then, they will have been absent so long that some may need a GPS to locate Parliament Hill.

In truth, Parliament is not Stephen Harper’s favorite place. Given his druthers, he would govern without it. He’s not alone in feeling that way. Most of his predecessors as PM lost their affection for the institution about six weeks after they moved over from the opposition benches.

Prorogation means the government loses the bills it had MPs working on before the summer recess. They will have to start over again, but the government does not seem concerned. When Parliament reconvenes next month, the Conservatives will have moved into a new phase. Legislation will take a back seat to election preparation.

With the next general election not due until October 2015, it seems awfully early to be getting ready, but these days in Canada, as in the United States, campaigns seem to be a seamless continuum. The Tories know that after seven years of Harper government they look tired and shopworn. Lacking the capacity to inspire or excite the electorate, they face two years of uphill slogging to get back to majority-government territory.

The polls suggest they need to start slogging. Although it may be abating somewhat now, the Justin Trudeau tide has lifted the Liberal boat enough to scare the Conservatives. The polls show the Liberals are slightly ahead of, or slightly behind, the Conservatives, with the NDP running a strong third. It looks as though the federal landscape is returning to its pre-2011 configuration. The difference is the New Democrats are eight or nine points stronger than they used to be, while the Conservatives and Liberals are correspondingly weaker.

At this early point, seat projections suggest a minority government, probably a weak one. With 338 seats in the enlarged Commons, a party will need 170 seats for a bare working majority (assuming the speaker is elected from government ranks). Professor Barry Kay, in a projection published last week by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, reported that no party is remotely close to majority status. His model showed the Conservatives with a minority government at 126 seats, with the Liberals at 121. (If so, it would be the closest federal election since 1972 when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals defeated Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives by two seats.) Kay put the NDP at 83 seats, the Bloc Québécois at seven, with Elizabeth May retaining the Greens’ single seat.

Poking around in the poll and seat projection numbers, it seems to me the public is still unsure about Justin Trudeau. It has come to regard NDP leader Thomas Mulcair as more Ed Broadbent (solid, responsible, intelligent) than Jack Layton (charismatic, exciting). And Stephen Harper is, well, Stephen Harper (familiar but not comfortable).