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.

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.