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.

Taking stock

Published Apr. 14, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record

Politicians by nature are not the most introspective of creatures. They do what they think they have to do, or what their leaders tell them to do. It is a rare politician who pauses to ask himself or herself why they are doing it, or to question whether it is the right thing, or best thing, for the country they serve.

That said, members of Parliament have an opportunity this week and next week to take stock. The sudden death of former finance minister Jim Flaherty shocked everyone on Parliament Hill and far beyond. Here was a man who had worked too hard for eight years in the service of the Harper government. In the process he destroyed his health and, suddenly, he was gone before he could even start to enjoy retirement. Many of his former colleagues from all parties, most of whom genuinely liked and respected the feisty little Irishman, are asking themselves whether it is all worth it.

Parliament has become a very nasty place. Back when, I spent 15 happy years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery covering the Hill. I barely recognize the place today. In those days, the House of Commons was a rough and tumble arena, but respect for the rules and the firm hand of the Speaker prevented it from becoming what it is today: a place where blind partisanship, vitriol and personal attacks have taken over. In those days, there was no Pierre Poilievre and no Orwellian “Ministry of State for Democratic Reform” — for which those of us who were there might, in retrospect, be grateful.
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The Commons is not sitting this week or next as MPs take an extended Easter recess. The break will not only enable them to say goodbye to Jim Flaherty — his state funeral is on Wednesday — but also to reflect on the sort of Parliament they want to return to.

Radical change is not in the cards, but MPs could take a few baby steps. On the government side, they could stop parroting the absurdly partisan and abusive lines written for them by the Prime Minister’s Office. On the opposition side, they could tone down the outrage; not everything the government does is wrong, badly motivated or an affront to democracy.

They could take a balanced approach to legislation. If a piece of legislation would make a bad law, they should expose its flaws (or, if on the government side, admit its flaws), then withdraw it or defeat it. If a piece of legislation would make a good law, they should applaud it and pass it.

The so-called Fair Elections Act is the place to start. This is Poilievre’s baby, conceived in the Conservative war room and handed to the young minister by the prime minister. The act surely has critics. Among other things, it’s being called the Unfair Elections Act, an Assault on Democracy Act, an Act to Perpetuate Conservative Governments (Forever), and Stephen Harper’s Revenge Against Elections Canada.

There are many things wrong with the Fair Elections Act, but I’ll mention just two. First, it is unnecessary. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the existing Canada Elections Act. It act has given Canada some of the fairest and most honest elections in the world. Canadians are the first people other nations call for when they need international election observers. Our rules work.

The second thing that’s wrong is that the Fair Elections Act is thoroughly bad legislation — retrograde, badly motivated, poorly crafted and appallingly partisan. It would discourage turnout by making it more difficult for some (mainly non-Conservative) groups to vote (the poor, homeless and students). It would politicize enforcement by transferring authority over the rules from the public servants who are custodians of the act today to the agents of the party in power.

Jim Flaherty has reminded us of the fragility of life. Do we need Pierre Poilievre and his Fair Elections Act to remind us of the fragility of our democracy?

A political pundit’s hunches for 2014

Published Dec. 30, 2013, in the Waterloo Region Record

In 2013, the political universe did not unfold as the savants and the players themselves thought it would. Far from it.

A year ago, who would have predicted that the biggest political stories of 2013 year would be a penny-ante Senate expense scandal (abetted by a clumsy cover-up by the Prime Minister’s Office) and an astonishing crack cocaine scandal starring the mayor of Toronto?

Who would have foreseen the second coming of the federal Liberal party under the untested Justin Trudeau, as the party rose in 2013 from third-party irrelevance to first place in the polls? Who would have thought the provincial Liberals would retain power in British Columbia? And who could have anticipated the southern Alberta floods last summer or the ice storm that gripped southern Ontario this month — too much water and too much ice each pushing political news out of public consciousness?

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Only a foolhardy pundit would predict anything for 2014. That said, let us proceed with extreme caution, starting with what we know for sure. First, we know the Toronto Maple Leafs will not win the Stanley Cup. I have been making this same prediction for 40 years, and I haven’t been wrong yet. My unblemished record is the envy of pundits everywhere, and surely it will be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. If the Leafs need to find a way to lose, they will find it, as they did in 2013.

Second, there will be no federal election in 2014. That’s because the next election is already scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015. Conceivably, Prime Minister Harper could find a pretext for going early (he’s done it before), but would he? Would you, if your party was running 10 points below its accustomed support in the polls and if pollsters were telling you Canadians now believe Trudeau would make a better prime minister than you? Harper may be an odd duck, but he’s not crazy. So no federal election in 2014.

Let’s move from what we know to what we suspect. Rob Ford will probably not be mayor of Toronto after the municipal election in October. There will probably be a provincial election in Ontario, in the fall if not sooner, as Premier Kathleen Wynne finds minority government increasingly untenable. Someone will win that election. To predict who that someone might be is to venture too far into the unknown.

Although Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives lead in the polls, their support is piled too deeply in rural/small town Ontario where there are relatively few seats. Pollsters tell us the Liberals’ strength in urban areas is more “efficient” — that is, fewer votes will yield more seats. This is treacherous terrain and I’ll give it a pass. To repeat, someone will win.

The question on many voters’ lips is: Whither Harper? Will he still be Conservative leader by this time next year? Harper himself says he intends to lead his party into the election scheduled for October 2015. But he would say that, wouldn’t he, even if he had already booked a getaway to Tasmania?

I don’t know the answer and I don’t know anyone who does. It seems to me Harper faces two challenges. The first is to regain control of the public agenda — to stop people talking about the Senate scandal (which will be difficult with the auditor-general’s investigation and possible RCMP charges still to come) and other awkward issues — and to get them talking instead about the economy, where the Conservatives feel they have the high ground.

The second challenge is to find a way to stop Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. Attack ads may work with the Conservative base, but not so well with the 70 per cent of the electorate that is disinclined to support the Harper party.

My hunch is that if the present trend persists — if by late 2014 another Tory majority appears out of reach — Harper will call it quits. That’s a hunch, not a prediction.

Is Harper looking for the exit sign?

Published Dec. 9, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has often repeated his intention to lead the Conservative party into the next federal election, and it might be so.

But that is the kind of assertion political figures must make in the light of political realities at the time, not as a distant goal.

Whatever the party leader’s aspirations, 2013 has not been kind, and supporters must wonder if the jig for the prime minister is not coming to an end. He has served in the role for almost eight years, and could manage another couple before the next election, should he choose to play out the string afforded by his majority government status. One can question, however, if that really in the party’s best interests?

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Canadian senate maintains key legislative and public policy roles

Published Nov. 21, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Over the past several weeks, the news media has been filled with stories about an alleged coverup involving the Prime Minister’s Office and some questionable expenses incurred by now suspended Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau.

As a result, politicians and commentators have demanded Senate reforms such as an elected Senate and mandatory term limits. Others, like Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, have proposed abolishing the Senate in its entirety. In both cases, reformers and abolitionists believe their solutions are necessary to address the various scandals currently engulfing the Canadian Senate.

But these calls for reform are akin to using an axe to kill a mosquito. Put simply, reforming or abolishing the Senate won’t prevent the Prime Minister’s Office from engaging in future payoffs and coverups.

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The Senate expense scandal will leave a legacy

Published Aug. 19, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Will anyone, 10 or 20 years from now, remember the Great Senate Expense Scandal of 2013?

Canada, let it be said, does not play in the big leagues of political corruption. The country generally ranks in the top dozen of the world’s cleanest nations – never as clean as the Scandinavians or the Swiss, but always cleaner than the Americans. That’s according to an annual ranking published by Transparency International, an independent monitoring organization based in Berlin and headed by Canadian Huguette Labelle.

Our scandals tend to be barely worth noticing by countries that rank as serious offenders. Yet some Canadian scandals have had a real impact. The first big one, the Pacific Scandal of the 1870s, featured the richest man in Canada, Sir Hugh Allan, paying $360,000 (in 1872 dollars) in what amounted to campaign bribes to Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives in return for the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway to British Columbia.

Although the scandal brought down the Macdonald government, its effect quickly passed. The railway got built. The Americans’ dream of annexing Canada’s Pacific coast was thwarted. Sir John A. sat in opposition for one term, then returned to serve as prime minister until his death in 1891; by then, he was a national hero.
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The Beauharnois Scandal of 1931, involving the building and financing of a huge hydro-electric project on the St. Lawrence River, involved more money – the secret payment of $700,000 to the Liberal party of Mackenzie King – and could have destroyed King’s political career. But it didn’t; King went on to become Canada’s long-serving prime minister.

The Airbus Scandal of the late 20th century had big money – $20 million in “grease money” that Airbus Industrie of Europe paid to its Canadian lobbyist, Karlheinz Schreiber, a charming crook, for distribution among “Canadian friends” (as Schreiber called them) who helped Airbus land a $1.8-billion contract to supply aircraft to Air Canada. Where did the $20 million go? Aside from former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, who pocketed $300,000 in cash after he left office, which “Canadian friends” got slices of the $20 million and what did they do to earn it? We don’t know.

As the Airbus Scandal fades from national memory, it is worth recalling that these questions, among many others, remain unanswered. No one was ever prosecuted, aside from Schreiber, who eventually went to jail in Germany.

Next: the Sponsorship Scandal of a decade ago had a real impact. The sponsorship program cost Canadian taxpayers $320 million, of which more than $100 million went astray, mostly into the pockets of Liberal-friendly advertising agencies in Quebec. People were charged and went to jail. The Liberal government was thrown out in the 2006 federal election. Conservative Stephen Harper became prime minister.

Viewed against this historical canvas, the current Senate scandal (Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb, Patrick Brazeau, et al) may seem picayune. The money (a few million at most) doesn’t amount to much these days.

But the scandal has rocked the Harper government. It involves the cynical use of patronage in the appointment of senators, some of whom offer nothing at all to the betterment of the nation. It involves the careless oversight of senators’ activities, their moonlighting, and their expenses. It involves sleazy attempts by the Prime Minister’s Office to whitewash the affair by buying the silence of one senator (Duffy) and covering up the expense abuses of another (Wallin) – a coverup initiated by the prime minister himself.

The Senate Expense Scandal may seem arcane, but it strikes at the fundamental honesty and integrity of the government. It is also forcing the powers in Ottawa, from the Harper cabinet to the Supreme Court, to reassess the relevance of the Senate and the wisdom of permitting the institution to continue.

The upper house is not likely to be abolished – that’s simply too difficult – but it will have to be reformed. That would be the legacy, worth remembering, of the expense scandal.

How much longer until someone else takes Conservative party torch?

Published Apr. 15, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record 

One of the most iconic scenes in American cinema comes from the 1955 Billy Wilder film, The Seven Year Itch. It shows Marilyn Monroe, the love interest in the film, standing on a Lexington Avenue subway grate, trying to hold down the billowing skirt of her sexy white dress.

What does this have to do with Stephen Harper, you may ask? Well, maybe a bit.

In the film, the male lead, played by Tom Ewell, finds his eye wandering after seven years of monogamous marriage. (Enter the tempting Ms. Monroe.) It just so happens that Prime Minister Harper recently (in February) celebrated his seventh anniversary in 24 Sussex, and it is no secret that the affections of some members of his uncommonly faithful caucus are beginning to wander. The pre-Easter flap over abortion is one indication of caucus restlessness, and we are bound to experience more of that in the coming months.

How much longer? MPs wonder. How much longer will the ambitious among them have to wait for the leader to depart and give them a chance at the brass ring?

Ottawa pundits, weary of Harper, are asking the same questions, to the point of suggesting that the prime minister has some sort of obligation to inform his party whether he intends to hang around to lead into the next election, scheduled for October 2015. If he is going to leave, or so say the pundits, he should tell his followers now so that they can plan an orderly succession.

(Don’t pay too much attention to the pundits. The last thing Ottawa journalists really desire is an orderly transition. That’s boring. A wide open scramble among inflated egos makes much better copy, especially if the scramble spills a bit of political blood.)

There is no reason to suspect Harper cares about any of this gratuitous advice. The job of his Conservative MPs is to show up and vote the way they are told before lapsing back into silence. And Harper has never paid any attention to the opinions of the media; there is no reason to think he will start now.

But the polls are interesting. As might be expected, Harper leads when respondents are asked which of the party leaders has the best experience to lead the country, but he trails Justin Trudeau when they are asked to name the most inspiring leader. A Nanos poll last week gave the Liberal party a four-point lead nationally over Harper’s Tories. Given the hype surrounding Trudeau and the Liberal convention, that’s not particularly surprising, either.

Of potentially greater significance is the decline of the NDP, the official Opposition in Parliament, into third place on most indicators. The Orange Revolution seems to be over. For the moment, it appears that Trudeau is retrieving the youth and soft Liberal votes that went to the NDP in 2011. It’s not so much that Thomas Mulcair has been an inadequate leader. He’s done and been everything the NDP could realistically have expected. In the beginning, he suffered by not being Jack Layton; now he suffers by not being Justin Trudeau. But, hey, no one ever said politics was fair.

The competition changes as of this week. Now that Trudeau is officially the Liberal leader, he will be vulnerable to attack from both the left and especially the right.

He knows the attacks are coming and claims he will be ready for them. But he says he will not indulge in the negativity that characterizes Tory politics under Harper.

“The biggest difference between a party led by me and one by Stephen Harper will be one of tone, one of respect for Canadians and their intelligence,” Trudeau says. “We don’t have to play by his rules.”

There’s a meanness, a nastiness, in federal politics these days, but no one is forcing anyone to play by Harper’s rules. After seven years, perhaps it’s time to scratch that itch.

Netanyahu must turn to domestic concerns

Published Jan. 26, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Those familiar with Israel’s electoral system will know that identification of the leading party and the prime minister-designate in a parliamentary election like the one held Tuesday is only the beginning of a long, arduous negotiating process to determine the shape of the new government, something that can take weeks.

While incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu is effectively the only plausible choice for prime minister after this week’s voting, his Likud party and its partner Israel Beteinu dropped from 42 seats in the previous Knesset (parliament) to just 31, barely halfway to forming even a bare majority in the 120-seat legislature, and it would require a substantially larger coalition to have any stability.

Most of Netanyahu’s decline was taken up by a new more conservative party, Bayit Yehudah. Of even greater consequence, however, is that the overall aggregation of right-wing and religious parties that sustained him in the past fell from 65 seats to 61, effectively insufficient to form a government on their own.

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