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.

I have a soft spot for Duff the reporter

Published July 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Let me begin with a confession. I have a soft spot for Mike Duffy. Not for the Conservative hack he chose to become, nor for the self-important senator (Old Duff) that he morphed into as he shilled for the party at fundraising events.

As a journalist, I cannot excuse the hatchet job he orchestrated on Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, an honourable man who struggled in English, near the end of the 2008 election campaign. A nasty, partisan job, it helped tip that election to Stephen Harper and secured Duffy’s appointment to the Senate.

The soft spot dates to an earlier time, when Duffy was a simple reporter in the Parliamentary Press Gallery who climbed the ladder by virtue of hard work, shrewd instincts and raw ambition. He was good. He got to know more key players on Parliament Hill than other reporters and, as a result, he broke more stories. He was the go-to reporter for many MPs.
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I watched him move from private radio to CBC radio to lead parliamentary reporter for CBC television, then on to stardom at CTV and celebrity status as host of his own shows. He earned his success, but it went to his head. He adored the spotlight. He left the press seats for the playing field in the political game that fascinated him. And he chose the Tories because they offered the best route to what he really wanted: that seat in the Senate.

Now the RCMP has charged him with no fewer than 31 criminal charges related to his Senate expense claims. The 31 charges amount to prosecutorial overreaching. The police undoubtedly hope to intimidate Duffy into pleading guilty to two or three of them, meanwhile demonstrating to their political masters and to the public at large that they have left no stone unturned in their investigation.

This is going to be a difficult prosecution for the police and government lawyers. Some of the charges are clearly redundant. Some are based on the quicksand of Senate expense rules, which tend to be vague and ill-enforced and which, over the years, have depended on an honour system among senators.

Duffy is accused of using his Senate expense account for personal travel and travel to political events on behalf of his party. Senators are not supposed to do that, but, if Duffy did, he wouldn’t be the first. These relatively small expense items account for 18 of the 31 changes.

The crux of the case is the residency issue. The Constitution and enabling legislation stipulate that senators be resident in the province they represent. That means they must own at least $4,000 worth of property in that province. The requirement is woefully outdated. These days, a parking space might satisfy the legal requirement.

Everyone, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, knew when he appointed Duffy that he had lived in Ottawa for decades. But he owned a cottage in Prince Edward Island and that seemed to satisfy the residency requirement. Members from beyond the National Capital Region are permitted to claim accommodation expenses when in Ottawa on Senate business. Usually, that means a hotel room.

In Duffy’s case, he unwisely claimed expenses for his house in Ottawa. That claim passed inspection by the Senate for a few years, until an outside auditor raised a red flag. Duffy was ordered to repay $90,000. He didn’t have the money. To cut a complicated story short, that’s why Duffy arranged to accept the $90,000 from Nigel Wright, the PM’s chief of staff, who tried to protect Harper from further embarrassment by writing a personal cheque for Duffy.

Harper got angry. Wright lost his job. Duffy got suspended from the Senate. Now, among the 31 charges, he is accused of corruptly accepting a $90,000 bribe from Wright. But Wright is not accused of offering a bribe. Go figure.

Clearly, Mike Duffy is the author of his own misfortune. It’s a misfortune that makes him as much a victim as a villain.

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.

Sulky children usher premier out of office

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

Politics is a thoroughly miserable profession.

It treats many of its practitioners, not with the deference or respect they may merit, but with cruel contempt. Too often, the career of a politician is, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.

Alison Redford discovered this in the weeks leading up to her resignation as premier of Alberta. It wasn’t really a resignation so much as it was a political assassination. She was assassinated by her own party, by her Progressive Conservative caucus. Caucus members didn’t like her style. She had won the leadership in October 2011 with almost no caucus support (only one MLA voted for her) and went on to capture a majority government the following year.

Notwithstanding her success (or because of it), her caucus resented her – partly because to them she was an outsider, partly because she was a pinker Tory than most of them, and partly, I believe, because she was a woman who had succeeded in a province where politics is still played by old-boy rules.

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She treated her followers like professionals instead of what they were: a bunch of sulky children whose little noses were out of joint. She didn’t stroke them enough, make them feel important enough, or invite them home for dinner often enough. And she didn’t keep them busy enough – too busy to waste time plotting her assassination.

She made mistakes, but they were not mistakes of government policy (Alberta continues to be one of the best-run provinces), nor were they mistakes of political strategy (she trounced the right-wing Wildrose party in the provincial election two years ago).

The mistakes were more personal – travel expenses and the use of government aircraft. It was entirely reasonable that she should fly to South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, with whom she had worked in the 1990s. But she should have paid attention to the cost of the trip. That $45,000 should have set off alarm bells. In the end, she reimbursed the treasury, but the damage was done.

She stood accused of being a wastrel with an overweening sense of entitlement. As we have seen with the Senate expense scandal, relatively small amounts can cause large damage: for Mike Duffy, it was $90,000; in Redford’s case that $45,000 left her vulnerable to attack by people who didn’t like her for other, less commendable reasons. She became the target of a nasty (and brutish) smear campaign.

Caucus members bitched about her leadership style. One MLA complained that Redford had a short temper and was not a “nice lady.” So the poor aggrieved fellow quit the caucus. Caucus members spread false tales that Redford had abused a member of her staff – an allegation that turned out to be without foundation.

The damage was done. Governments’ poll numbers often crater at the mid-point of their terms (as Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives could attest today) and Redford’s were no exception. Support for the Alberta PCs dropped to the 20 per cent range, Wildrose was re-energized, and, after 43 unbroken years in office, the Tories panicked.

In Ottawa, the federal Conservatives’ poll numbers aren’t all that much better these days, and, although there is anxiety, there is no panic. There is no sense that if they don’t push Harper off the Peace Tower right now, Justin Trudeau will become prime minister in October 2015. He may or may not win that election, but the Tories know time is on their side. Panic won’t help. They have time and the tools (lots of attack ads) to right the ship.

Alberta’s PCs have even more time, until spring 2016 before they have to face the electorate. When they do, it will be with a new leader – a male, surely. Ironically, they will be up against a Wildrose party under the leadership of, yes, a woman, Danielle Smith. Unless the old boys in Wildrose get to her first.



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?

The truth is, the Tories are worried

Published Mar. 3, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Prime Minister’s chief spokesman went into high dudgeon when reporters asked why opposition leaders and MPs were excluded from a reception for Aga Khan at Massey Hall in Toronto last week – an event hosted by Stephen Harper and paid for by the taxpayers of Canada.

“Those trying to cheapen the event by flinging baseless partisan accusations should be ashamed of themselves,” Jason MacDonald wrote in an e-mail. “We won’t dignify these partisan attacks with a response.”

Come, come, Mr. MacDonald. It’s your boss who has mastered the mechanics of petty partisanship and raised it to an art, at least in the eyes of the Conservative faithful. It’s your government that barred opposition representatives from Foreign Minister John Baird’s mission to Ukraine. It was one of your MPs who refused to allow Liberal MP Irwin Cottler, a former justice minister, to attend an Israeli charity event during Harper’s visit to that country.

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It’s your government that is using the cynically misnamed “Fair Elections Act” to strip Canada’s chief electoral officer of the power to investigate election cheating – because whenever he has found cheaters they have happened to be Conservatives. And it’s your party that is trying to squeeze the last drop of electoral advantage by exploiting divisions among minority-group Canadians.

Perhaps instead of accusing others of “flinging baseless partisan accusations,” Mr. MacDonald, you might come clean with the public. Try being candid. Why don’t try saying something along the following lines:

The  Harper government is sorry if we seem sleazy, petty or vindictive. But the truth is, we are worried, very worried. Our Tory universe is not unfolding the way we want. We’re starting to get frightened.

We  thought we  could bury the Senate expenses scandal in a black hole somewhere, but Thomas Mulcair and his media lickspittles wouldn’t let us. We thought we could demolish Justin Trudeau with attack ads exposing him as all hair and no substance, but that didn’t work either. Not only  are  the Liberals outgunning us in the polls, Canadians tell us they like this Trudeau kid better than our great leader,  the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper. Increasing numbers of you are telling pollsters that you even think the Liberals could do a better job than we do when it comes to running the economy. Can you believe that?

We are not asking for pity, but did you see the poll that the Manning Centre in Ottawa put out the other day? That’s “Manning” as in Preston, the founder of the Reform party, from which we Harperites sprang. So these Manning Centre people are our people and every year they have Carleton University’s André Turcotte measure the state of conservatism in Canada. The numbers this year are not pretty. They are gruesome. As Prof. Turcotte put it in his presentation, they are heading in the wrong direction.

The number of Canadians who call themselves Conservative is shrinking. In British Columbia, 33 per cent of respondents identified themselves as Conservatives in 2012; today, that  number is down to 20 per cent. In Ontario, the decline in the same period is from 35 per cent to 25.

What’s worse, the people are not embracing our toolkit of enlightened policies. Prof. Turcotte found the Liberals are tied with us on the question of ability to deal with the economy; both the Liberals and NDP are ahead of us on questions of managing health care and unemployment; and even the Green party leads us on ability to deal with poverty and the environment.

What’s more, 93 per cent favour increasing (not reducing) the investigative powers of Elections Canada while 92 per cent think party leaders should be made more accountable to their caucuses. Our prime minister may not be amused by that.

As the professor says, the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. If it continues, we could all find ourselves unemployed in October 2015. Is it any wonder we seem frazzled these days?

“Justin Trudeau Removes Senators from Liberal Caucus”

So reads the headline of a CBC news report on Trudeau’s “stunning” decision to remove Liberal Senators from his caucus.

As a political strategy, the move has both its costs and benefits. As a colleague of mine recently pointed out, the decision keeps the Senate on the political agenda, which has been a problematic file for the Harper government. On the other hand, Trudeau has seriously ticked off a large portion of the Liberal Party elite!

I’m still processing the implications of this announcement but here are two initial reactions.

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First, has Trudeau in fact removed partisanship from the Senate, thereby turning it into a non-partisan chamber of sober second thought? At least in the short term, and probably the medium term as well, the answer is no. As long as the Prime Minister continues to dictate who gets appointed, then we should continue to see partisan individuals appointed to the Senate. If the process changes in a meaningful way, will partisanship disappear? Maybe in the long term, if the government can come up with an appointment process that can approximate what goes on for the Supreme Court (although attitudinal studies of SCC decision making may provide evidence to the contrary!). But in the short and medium terms, we are likely to get what exists in most municipalities, where formal parties are not recognized, but in practice, councillors vote consistently along partisan (or at least ideological) lines.

Second, what happens if Trudeau wins a minority or majority government in the next election? Will these newly independent Senators seek revenge and work with Conservative senators to block legislation? Will they simply continue to vote as a bloc? Or will they exercise their independence? I’m not sure.

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.

PMO still in ‘plausible deniability’ mode

Published Nov. 25, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Let’s talk today about “plausible deniability.” The term apparently originated in the 1960s and referred at that time to CIA “black” operations.

It means that persons in power are to be protected from knowledge about illegal, unethical, immoral or politically damaging activities so that they may deny (without actually lying) having sanctioned these activities — because, you see, they didn’t know about them.

It’s a form of deception. If the denials hold, they are deemed to be plausible. If they don’t, the denier-in-chief will be accused of orchestrating a coverup. That’s what happened with Watergate; it was the coverup rather than the “third-rate burglary” that brought down Richard Nixon. And it’s where we are now with the Senate expense scandal.

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In money terms, it is very much a third-rate scandal. But the coverup is leading ever deeper into the most important office in the land, the Prime Minister’s Office, where Stephen Harper is still in plausible-denial mode. He says knew nothing about the infamous $90,000 cheque that Nigel Wright, his chief of staff, wrote to Mike Duffy. Or almost nothing. Or not enough to piece together what was going on in his office or in the Senate — even though roughly a dozen people in his entourage seemed to know.

Yes, he knew there was a Senate problem, because Duffy had told him about it. He knew Wright was trying to deal with it. He almost certainly knew about an earlier plan to use about $32,000 in Conservative party funds to bail Duffy out, because Nigel Wright says he briefed Harper on that, and, he says, got the PM’s go-ahead.

When that plan failed — after the amount climbed to $90,000 — did Harper know that Wright was going to use his personal funds for Duffy? Perhaps he didn’t; we don’t know yet. We do know that Harper trusted Wright to make the problem go away. That’s what loyal lieutenants are meant to do. And if the problem doesn’t go away, the lieutenant is expected to fall on his sword. As he did.

Although they have not laid charges against anyone, the RCMP documents released last week allege Wright committed bribery, fraud and breach of trust. But some legal experts think the Mounties are over-reaching. The Criminal Code, they say, requires evidence of corrupt intent. But was Wright acting corruptly, or was he simply trying on behalf of his boss to make a political problem go away? The law also says a benefit must be involved. There may have been a benefit to Duffy, but not to Wright who kissed goodbye to $90,000, knowing he would never see it again.

In last week’s column, I advanced the hypothesis that the Conservatives would get re-elected in 2015 if they kept the government focused on economic recovery. That generated two types of reader response, both negative. In the first, readers argued the Senate scandal has caused irreparable damage to the Harper brand, that the prime minister has painted himself into a corner from which he cannot escape. As these readers see it, the Tories might manage to return with a minority, but probably not.

According to the second school of thought, none of this matters, because Harper will be gone before the end of 2014. He’s not likely to be forced out by his caucus, although discontent is growing. More likely Harper himself will decide that eight years (which it will be in January) is enough, that the chances of another majority are too slim to be worth the risk, and that a smart leader would get out while he is still on top and before forces that he cannot control — auditors, police, courts, opposition parties and the media — can do him further damage over the Senate scandal.

I’m not convinced by either school of thought. Instead, let’s give the last word to Nigel Wright, who predicted in one of his emails: “I think that this is going to end badly.” Yep.

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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Attention to shift to Supreme Court

Published Nov. 11, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is back in control, sort of.

The Senate has been put back in its place. The three wayward Conservatives, Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, who went out of their way to make life miserable for the PM, have been cast into outer darkness, their paycheques terminated (but, oddly, not their health or life insurance nor, it seems, their pensions). The clumsy coverup concocted by the prime minister and his staff has been swept into a black hole reserved for fables that no intelligent person would buy.

With the Commons off for its weeklong Remembrance Day recess, attention will shift to the Supreme Court of Canada, which has set aside three days this week to hear lawyers argue the nitty-gritty of the Harper government’s constitutional reference on Senate reform. The court’s task will be complicated less by the pyrotechnics on Parliament Hill than by the inexactitude of the reference itself.

After roughly two decades of hemming and hawing, the Harper party still doesn’t know what it wants to do with the Senate or what role, if any, it wants the upper house to play in the life of the country. Back in its Reform days, the party thought it wanted a serious upper house, elected and effective. As the prospect of attaining office increased, however, the Conservatives, as they had become, lost their ardour for a real Senate on the U.S. model. Why share power with a second house?

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After forming the government in 2006, they did introduce bills to tweak the Senate, but never made a serious effort to pass them. At first, they blamed opposition obstruction. These days they are blaming the courts for thwarting reform — this without even waiting for the Supremes to hear arguments this week.

The reference invites the court to choose from a smorgasbord of options: from outright abolition of the Senate (which appears to be Harper’s new default position); to retaining the red chamber but eliminating its powers; to limiting the terms of members to eight years or to nine years or to 10 years or more (take your pick); to authorizing federal and/or provincial referendums to nominate senators; to repealing the requirement that senators own $4,000 in “real property” in the province they represent.

But (Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin take note) there is no mention of the thorny issue of residency: are senators required to actually live in the province they represent, or it is good enough to own a second residence there? The Supreme Court is not being asked that.

It is being asked about amendment procedures. Abolition of the upper house would likely need unanimous consent among the provinces. Lesser changes might require use of the 7/50 formula (seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population). A relatively minor reform (such as term limits) might be accomplished by Act of Parliament alone.

The Supreme Court hearings may divert attention from the expenses scandal, but the respite will be temporary for the government. The RCMP is still investigating the expense claims of the trio of Tory senators, plus newly retired Liberal Mac Harb. The auditor general is reviewing the expenses of all senators. And Duffy and Wallin have lawyers primed to fight their suspensions in court.

More important, crucial questions will still be waiting for Harper when Parliament resumes in a week’s time, and Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair will be there to ask them.

Why did the Prime Minister’s Office tell Duffy it was OK to claim his P.E.I. cottage as his principal residence when everyone knew he had lived in Ottawa for years? Why did the prime minister assure Parliament that he had seen Pam Wallin’s expenses and they were consistent with other senators’? Why was Nigel Wright unceremoniously downgraded from Loyal Lieutenant to Great Deceiver?

Finally, what did Harper himself know and when did he know it? As I have noted before, this is not Watergate, but it has a similar smell.

Sometimes it takes a firm push to get government moving

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

The wheels of government grind exceedingly slowly, as many citizens can attest from personal experience. And the more senior the government, the more slowly its wheels seem to turn. Decisions that might require a few days can take weeks or months, if not years.

Sometimes it takes a firm push, or a boot in the posterior, to get a government moving. Here are a couple of recent examples.

First, climate change. Back in 1997, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, committing Canada to the reduction of greenhouse gases. True, the Liberals never made a serious effort to meet the emissions targets, but at least they paid lip service to the notion that global warming was a bad thing. Not so Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. To them, climate change was fuzzy socialist thinking that intruded on the healthy capitalist enterprise of resource extraction.

Last week, however, word was leaked that Harper had written to U.S. President Barack Obama offering a deal. If Obama would do what he had become reluctant to do — approve the stalled Keystone KL pipeline, a $5.3-billion project to carry crude oil from the Alberta oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast — the Harper government would get serious about greenhouse-gas emissions. Harper proposed joint action by the two governments to reduce emissions.
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The pipeline provided the push. Whether it will actually lead to anything is matter for another day, or month or year.

The second example is the Senate. Senate reform has been stated policy of the Conservatives since they came to office in 2006. The Tories have been ragging the puck for seven years, going nowhere. Now, however, a combination of ill-considered appointments and the cynical use of celebrity senators (and their expense accounts) to promote the partisan interests of the Tory party has created a problem that will not go away.

It is distracting the government, making it look sleazy in the public’s eyes, and providing fuel to the opposition as the political cycle turns toward a general election in two years’ times. Now, Harper needs to be seen to be doing something about the Senate. After seven years, he has only himself to blame for his dilemma.

There are other examples of inaction. Thirty years ago, the CF-18 went into service with the Canadian Air Force. The government knows these aircraft must be replaced, but it cannot get its act together. When the Harper government took office in 2006, it decided to order 65 sophisticated F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters. Production delays, performance problems and a constantly inflating price tag played havoc with the proposed acquisition. Initially, the all-in cost was given as $16 billion. The figure kept rising in various reports — to $25 billion, $30 billion, then $40 billion. The latest figure circulating within the government: $71 billion (or more than $1 billion per plane).

So now the government is looking around for other options. Guess what they are looking at: the F-18 Super Hornet, the updated version of the aircraft Canada purchased 30 years ago. It still does the job.

Next, the search and rescue helicopters — an even longer story than the CF-18 replacement. Canada’s Sea King helicopters are routinely described as “aging.” That’s an understatement. The Sea Kings went into service 50 years ago, in the summer of 1963; 27 of the original 41 are still in service.

Back in 1986, the Mulroney Conservative government began looking for replacement choppers, and in 1992 it signed a $4.4-billion contract with European Helicopter Industries for 48 EH-101 helicopters. In 1993, however, Chrétien, keeping an election promise, cancelled the purchase, incurring $157.8 million in penalties. A new search began. These things take time. In 2004, Ottawa announced it would spend $3.2 billion for 28 Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopters.

Deliveries were to be made between 2008 and 2012. Sikorsky couldn’t make the deadlines, so Ottawa is looking around (again). Meanwhile the venerable Sea Kings keep chopping along.

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.

Political scandals on hiatus but are far from resolved

Published July 5, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

With Parliament in recess, the Senate expenses scandal will be receding in news coverage for awhile, to be replaced by softer summer stories.

But however much he would prefer otherwise, unfortunately for Stephen Harper the matter is far from over. The same celebrity aspect that motivated the prime minister to appoint Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin to the Senate in the first place is an important factor in keeping the topic in public view. Indeed, such excessive accounting abuses might have been ignored by the media altogether in the past had they been committed by more obscure members of the chamber.

What makes the scandal more toxic for the government is that it undermines a fundamental principle of the prime minister’s past success: public accountability and integrity.

This accountability was a primary reason for the Conservative defeat of Paul Martin’s Liberal government seven years ago, and has been crucial in sustaining Harper since then.

Whether the prime minister had prior knowledge of his chief of staff Nigel Wright’s $90,000 payment to Duffy to cover the cost of the senator’s improperly claimed residency expenses, the bloom seems to be off the Tory rose.

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