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.

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?