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.

Is opportunity knocking at Trudeau’s door?

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

Justin Trudeau has no policies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. PM, please think twice about five debates

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

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper

24 Sussex Drive

Ottawa, Ontario

My very dear Prime Minister:

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

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

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

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

Five!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your faithful lickspittle,

etc., etc.

Anti-terrorism bill shows bad judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tories bask in momentum and good luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harper isn’t out of the woods yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A deep chill descends over Parliament Hill

Published on Nov. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Back in the olden days, when prime ministers still deigned to speak to provincial premiers, they would hold gatherings called first ministers’ conferences. This happened fairly often, perhaps once a year, depending on what was happening in the country at the time.

The prime minister would invite his provincial counterparts to Ottawa to talk about the economy, the Constitution, the state of the federation, pensions, medicare or even that old chestnut, the reform of the Senate.  The premier of Ontario always sat on the PM’s right, the premier of Quebec on his left, with the others placed around the table in the order of entry into Confederation.

If he was in a good mood, which he often was, their genial host would invite his guests home for drinks and dinner. They might pose for a group photograph, then hold press conferences to tell the Canadian public what they had discussed and decided, or left undecided.
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Thinking back on it, it was a comforting ritual. Things might be going badly in the land – whether because of international issues, persistent unemployment, hyper-inflation or the threat of separatism – but at least the leaders, regardless of partisan affiliation, would gather to try to sort out problems and seek solutions. The process was reassuringly Canadian.

That was then. This is now. In the Sun King era in Ottawa, Stephen Harper does not hold federal-provincial conferences. Now that he has a majority government, he doesn’t think he needs to.

It’s not so much that he actively dislikes individual premiers (although he manages to control his affection for Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne), as it is that he actively resists the notion of meeting with them en masse. That would mean sharing the big national stage with a gaggle of mere provincial politicians, who would undoubtedly try to make him spend his money to fix their problems. He has cabinet ministers who can take care of whatever it may be that is troubling these lesser leaders. And why should he have them home for dinner?

The premiers think of themselves as partners in Confederation. He treats them as uninvited guests at the national table.

The chill between Ottawa and Toronto is deepening. Premier Wynne wants to meet Harper to discuss such legitimate issues as infrastructure, the auto industry, improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, and violence against aboriginal women and girls. She wrote to Harper in September to request a meeting. Last week, two months later, she got a reply but no agreement to meet. “I encourage you to work with the responsible federal ministers to make further progress in these priority areas over the coming year,” the prime minister wrote.

Why the snub? It has everything to do with partisan politics. In the past – though not always, admittedly – federal and provincial leaders tried to keep out of each other’s patch in election season. Not today. Wynne is openly campaigning for Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals in the pre-launch to the federal election of 2015, just as Harper and his people vigorously supported Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives in the Ontario election this year.

The federal election next October will be won or lost in Ontario. In Wynne, the Liberals have a potent ally. She has a fresh majority mandate and is considerably more popular in the province – especially in Toronto – than Harper is. So don’t expect him to do her any favours between now and election day.

The breakdown in relations between Ottawa and Ontario has had one interesting effect. Left without someone to talk to in Ottawa, Wynne is working around Harper by making common cause with Quebec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, a fellow Liberal, starting with electricity swaps (they signed an agreement when they met in Toronto last week), climate change and pipelines.

For Ontario and Quebec to work together is in the best tradition of Confederation. That they are doing it today highlights the leadership vacuum that exists in Ottawa.

Are the Tories flying under the radar on the F-35?

Published Nov. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Now that MPs are back in Ottawa from their week-long Remembrance Day break and the Prime Minister has returned from telling off Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit Down Under, might one venture an impolitic question?

Who is responsible for pulling the wool over the Canadian public’s eyes on the F-35, that hugely expensive stealth warplane that Ottawa has been dithering over for the better part of a decade?

Is it the Conservative cabinet, which would dearlylove to acquire 65 of these magnificent flying machines, if only it could figure out a way to sneak the purchase (estimated price: $45 billion over the lifetime of the aircraft) past the auditor general, parliamentary budget officer and the opposition parties? Or is it the Pentagon, which, being under heavy political fire in Washington for cost overruns, is anxious to spread the F-35 risk among as many friendly nations as possible? Continue reading

Or is it our own generals at the Defence Department in Ottawa and their allies in the aircraft industry (our very own “military-industrial complex”), who may be desperate to nail down the purchase of the snappy new planes before a federal election next year that could produce a new government with ideas of wiser ways to spend $45 billion?

The Harper government keeps insisting a final decision has not been made on new fighter aircraft. But those denials have worn thin. Last week’s column mentioned a leak from a Pentagon briefing to the effect that Canada had asked to accelerate the purchase of its first four F-35s, with a letter of intent to be sent to Washington this month and a purchase order placed by next March.

This information was contained on slide 11 of a 14-slide, high-level briefing by Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer, to Deborah Lee James, secretary of the U.S. Air Force. The Pentagon subsequently confirmed the accuracy of the leak.

These four early-production aircraft, to be used for pilot training, would cost an anticipated $640 million. More than that, they would effectively commit Ottawa replacing the aging CF-18s with F-35s. (Who in his right mind would spend $640 million to train pilots on planes they were never going to be asked to fly?)

Stephen Harper was Auckland on an official visit to New Zealand when reporters caught up to his entourage last week. Officials travelling with him insisted Canada will not be buying those four F-35s and said no decision will be made on which warplane to purchase until firm details on cost and capabilities are received from Lockheed Martin, the U.S. manufacturer.

Who to believe? Assuming the officials with Harper were being truthful, is it possible that the U.S. general briefing the secretary of the air force deliberately misled her with a view to shoring up political support for the troubled program? Alternatively, is it possible that a senior person in the Canadian military or even in the cabinet slipped some erroneous (or premature) information to the Pentagon in the hope of backing the Harper government into a purchase commitment?

Last week, there was another leak, this time to the Ottawa Citizen. Ever since 2006, the Harper government has been a participant in a nine-nation partnership that helps finance the development of the F-35. The way it works, each country kicks in some money every year; in return, manufacturers in that country get a chance to bid on contracts to supply components for the F-35.

This year, Ottawa was asked to contribute $22.5 million. The defence department refused to pay and passed the bill to the RCAF, which pleaded poverty. When the dust settled, the department found the cash, gave it to the RCAF and told the air force to pay the bill.

This annual tithing exercise is part of the 2006 partnership agreement; it commits Canada to investing $551 million over 40 years. The next payment falls due on May 1. And no decision has been made? Really?

Are Tories fast-tracking the F-35 decision?

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

Love them or hate them, you have to concede one thing to the Harper Conservatives. They are persistent. Some might say stubborn or high-handed, even when wrong-headed. Once they have embarked on a course, they do not let themselves be deflected – not by public opinion, not by the courts (the restoration of anti-prostitution laws being a current example), not by Parliament, not by expert opinion, and certainly not by common sense.

The long drawn-out saga of the F-35 fighter aircraft is an example of the Conservatives’ refusal to heed both expert opinion and common sense. They have been committed to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning, the most expensive warplane in history, ever since they took office in 2006. In 2012 – faced with production delays, performance issues, soaring costs (from an original estimate of $16 billion over the lifetime of 65 aircraft to a revised projection of $45 billion), and a devastating report by the Auditor General – the government ordered a review.

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No one outside the government knows what the review, conducted in secret, involved. Did it look seriously at other (and cheaper) aircraft from other manufacturers? Did it assess whether the F-35 actually meets Canada’s military requirements? (And what, by the way, are those requirements? Maybe the Canadian public would like to know.) Did the review even consider the pilot-safety issue that would inevitably arise if the single-engine F-35 were deplored to patrol the vast distances across the far north and along Canada’s coastlines?

We don’t know these things because the Conservatives haven’t told us. But the review must have endorsed the F-35 because it found its way back to the cabinet agenda this past spring for a decision. In June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, apparently not satisfied he could make a convincing case to the public, bought some time by removing the item from the agenda. The government bought some more time in September by deciding to spend unannounced millions to extend until 2025 the life of the CF-18, the 30-year-old twin-engine warplane that the F-35 is meant to replace.

These moves seemed to suggest that the Tories were punting a final F-35 purchase decision until after the federal election, scheduled for October 2015.

But things are not always what they seem to be in the worlds of politics and weapons acquisition. Last week, Canadians learned, courtesy of a leak from the U.S. Pentagon, that Ottawa is proposing to fast-track its acquisition of F-35s. (Why Canadians have to learn about important issues, anything from drug safety to military purchases, from the Americans rather than from their own government is an interesting question. But I digress.)

According to the leaked Pentagon briefing, Ottawa plans to send a letter of intent to Washington this month confirming that Canada will place an order for at least four F-35s by the end of this fiscal year (next March 31). The deal is this: the U.S. Air Force has four places on the F-35 production schedule for aircraft to be delivered in 2016 or 2017. The RCAF would take those positions, and use those four aircraft for pilot training; in return the USAF would take four slots that are earmarked for Canada on the 2019 delivery schedule.

If, as we are told, no final decision has been made to buy F-35s, why the rush to order them? A cynic might suggest it has something to do with the polls. According to EKOS Research, concern about public safety, in the wake of terrorism-linked incidents in Ottawa and Quebec, has boosted the Conservatives’ standing as they rose from 12 points behind the Liberals a month earlier to just three points down today.

That movement was enough to cause Frank Graves, president of EKOS, to speculate that Harper might find it expedient to ignore the fixed-election law again and call a snap early election. In this scenario, a multi-billion dollar military purchase, plus a tough-on-crime domestic agenda, might be the ticket to re-elect the Tories. Or is this far too cynical?

Health system needs federal leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PM should heed Mulroney’s career advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harper keeping his options open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Harper influenced by polls?

Published Aug. 18, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Pollsters are forever serving up useless information. But sometimes they come up with findings that, while devoid of practical value, are sort of interesting nonetheless.

For example, polling companies report periodically on the number of people who believe that Elvis is still alive. Why they ask this, I don’t know, but they do. A few years ago, the number stood consistently at 12 per cent to 13 per cent of adult Americans. While more recent polls put the figure at “only” 8 per cent, it means that roughly 16 million (delusional) Americans believe the King is still with us. (For the record, Elvis left the building in August 1977, or so we are told.)

In the category of useless but marginally interesting information, I would put a new poll by the firm Angus Reid Global, which asked 1,502 Canadians to choose adjectives to express what they thought of a selection of national leaders. Not surprisingly, United States President Barack Obama, who always polls better north of the border than south of it, did very well. Forty-six per cent of Canadians said he was “influential,” 33 per cent chose “compassionate,” 32 per cent “inspiring.” 29 per cent “credible,” and so on. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Canadians can’t vote in the mid-term elections in November.
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Also not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin fared badly. To 54 per cent of Canadians, he is “arrogant,” “corrupt” (52 per cent), “dishonest” (45 per cent), and “secretive” (41 per cent).

And how is Stephen Harper viewed by his own countrymen? Surprisingly (or perhaps not), he stands closer to Putin than to Obama. In terms of being “secretive,” he is right there with Putin, at 39 per cent to the Russian president’s 41. In terms of being “arrogant,” Harper trails Putin 37-54. Among other descriptions, Harper is seen as “dishonest” (31 per cent) and “boring” (26 per cent).

Who cares about any of this? Probably not Obama. Personal popularity is not a big concern when he is constitutionally precluded from seeking a third term. Certainly not Putin. He doesn’t need to court public support at home let alone among detractors like Canadians.

But Harper may care. His Conservatives face a federal general election in October 2015, and if Harper decides to seek a fourth term as prime minister, he will have to be concerned about the hardening negative perception that Canadians have of him and his leadership. According to the poll, positive impressions are much weaker than the negative ones. Only 19 per cent say they see him as a “strong” leader, 18 per cent say he is “influential,” 17 per cent “credible” and 13 per cent “honest.”

So here is the dilemma, if you happen to be Stephen Harper. By election time, you will have been Tory leader for 12 years; you will have fought four national elections (and won three of them); and you will have been prime minister for nine long years. The negatives revealed in the Angus Reid poll are not news to you. You have never gone out of your way to make yourself lovable, or even very interesting, to Canadians. Today your party trails so badly behind the Liberals that pundits are starting to speculate that the Conservatives could finish third behind both the Liberals and the NDP.

But if you want to win again, how do you persuade the public that its perception of you is wrong? How do you convince them that you are, in fact, what they believe you are not? How do you convince them that you are open, honest and compassionate? How do you, after all these years, compete with the freshness and vigour of a Justin Trudeau? Or can you bring yourself to you fold your tent and let your party move on without you?

In the end, maybe none of this matters. A poll is just a poll after all. This one may prove to be useless, but it is sort of interesting all the same.

The F-35 continues to haunt the PM

Published Aug. 11, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Somewhere in Ottawa, unknown to the outside world, there is a black hole — a secret place where the government consigns toxic ideas, ideas that it dares not implement, yet cannot bring itself to kill.

The F-35 fighter jet is one such idea. The Harper government has been grappling with it ever since it took office in 2006. It has heard from experts that the super-sophisticated F-35 is not the right plane; that it does not suit Canada’s modest military requirements; that its single engine makes it too dangerous for patrols across the country’s vast distances; and that its humongous cost — $45 billion or more for 65 aircraft — puts it well beyond the reach of the budget-conscious Conservatives.

Somehow the F-35 has managed to survive on the government’s to-do list, never categorically endorsed, but also never firmly rejected. This June, it surfaced on the cabinet’s agenda for a decision. To his credit, the prime minister removed the item from the agenda, ostensibly to give ministers more time to weigh the implications. So the F-35 went back into that black hole.
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One can hope that its time there will be usefully spent. The question of whether Canada should buy any military aircraft without an open competition among manufacturers is a long-standing issue. There have also been some recent developments to be considered. Safety is one. On the eve of the July 4 holiday, the Pentagon announced it was grounding its entire fleet of new F-35s following an engine fire during trials in Florida. It decided it would be too dangerous to fly the F-35s across the Atlantic to debut at two air shows in Britain, the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow. Those appearances were cancelled.

Critics in the United States keep hammering away at the cost. The Pentagon plans to purchase 2,443 copies of the F-35 at an all-in cost (including operating costs over the lifetime of the aircraft) of something in excess of $1 trillion.

To the critics, it’s a question of spending priorities. Eliminate homelessness? The F-35 expenditure would be enough, one report calculated, to buy every homeless person in the United States a $664,000 house.

Food for the poor? If the money were directed to the U.S. National School Lunch Program, it would pay for nutritious lunches for all 55 million students enrolled in elementary school in country, not just next year, but for the next decade. Or to look at it another away, the money could fund UN peacekeeping operations at their current level for 46 years.

Logic and priorities aside, there is no chance that the United States will abandon the F-35 program. It is too far in to back out, having already spent $298 billion in taxpayer funds. What’s more, the F-35 is more than a weapons-acquisition program for Washington. It is a massive job-creation scheme, extending into almost every corner of the United States. It’s a huge pork barrel. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, has hired suppliers and subcontractors in no fewer than 45 states, meaning virtually every senator and congress person has a vested interest in keeping the aircraft program alive.

Like other countries that have been supporting the F-35, Canada’s aeronautical sector has a slice of the jobs. The slice would presumably grow if Canada proceeds with the purchase.

For a government focused on job creation and economic growth — and facing a general election next fall — those highly paid jobs are an important consideration. Against them, the Tories must weigh arguments that Canada doesn’t really need F-35s to do what they are meant to do — support ground forces in combat zones; that the requirements of continental defence could be better served by twin-engine aircraft; and that the obscene price of $45 billion or more would devour an inordinate share of the national budget.

The F-35 would be a hard sell on the hustings, which is why it may remain in the black hole for quite some time.

Taking politics out of the Senate

Published Aug. 5, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. What, one wonders, would happen if the Harper government applied that adage to the seemingly intractable issue of Senate reform?

We already know, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada, what is not possible. It is not possible to abolish the Senate without the unanimous consent of the provinces. The same unanimity requirement would surely pertain to any effort to redistribute Senate seats to reflect demographic reality — by taking from the East and giving to the West. Other reforms, involving the powers of the Senate, the direct election of senators or term limits for its members, would also require significant involvement of the provinces — if not unanimous agreement, at least the consent of seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population (the 7/50 rule).
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The failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in the Mulroney era illustrate the futility of trying to negotiate provincial agreement on constitutional proposals. It would be no easier today, in an era when the provinces simply do not trust the federal Conservative government to say what it means and to do what it says.

Given this sad reality, the trick for Stephen Harper, if he is serious about Senate change, is to work around the constitutional straitjacket by implementing measures to make the upper house more democratic, more relevant, more useful and more productive — without wasting years arguing with the provincial governments. The measures are all within the realm of possibility, and within the power of the federal government, acting on its own.

First, eliminate party blocs within the Senate by abolishing the Conservative caucus as Justin Trudeau has already abolished the Liberal caucus. Freed of partisan shackles, senators would be able to debate legislation without party rhetoric and to make laws better before sending them back to the House of Commons. Isn’t that what the chamber of sober second thought is supposed to do?

Second, flush the patronage out of the Senate system by changing the method of appointment. Direct election (as for members of the Commons), would require a constitutional amendment, but Harper doesn’t have to go that far.

He could do two things without sacrificing his constitutional prerogative to name senators. First, he could encourage provinces to hold “consultative” elections of senators, as Alberta already does. But Harper would have to pledge to appoint whomever the electorate chose, even if the person were not a Tory. Alternatively, the prime minister could invite the premiers to choose the senators for their provinces.

For example, Ontario has 24 of the 105 Senate seats. Four Ontario seats are currently vacant. Harper could invite Kathleen Wynne to present four names and he would appoint them, no questions asked. She might choose four Liberals, or she might not. That wouldn’t matter. Once partisanship is eliminated from upper house, the party stripe of newcomers will be less important than their experience and other qualifications.

Informal groups of senators, feeling the pressure of public opinion, have been meeting secretly in recent weeks to discuss ways of fixing the upper house. (Why the secrecy, I have no idea.) One of their ideas, long overdue, is that their speaker be elected by the members (as the Commons speaker is), instead of being appointed by the prime minister. Another sensible idea is to abolish the daily question period. Now that the government leader in the Senate is no longer a member of the cabinet (a move Harper made to distance himself from the Senate expenses scandal), the question period is even more useless than it has historically been, because now there is no one to answer for the government.

A better idea, I submit, would be for senators to arrange for the prime minister to attend the Senate once a week to take questions for a half-hour or so.

None of these changes would revolutionize Parliament. But they would make the Senate more relevant without reopening the Constitution.