You will not find them written down anywhere, but there are two rules of political protocol that are customarily observed in this country.
The first could be called the “anti-haunting” rule. When party leaders leave the political stage, willingly or otherwise, they do not hang around in retirement to haunt their successor’s performance. They are expected to go quietly into the good night. They keep their mouth shut and their advice to themselves.
The second unwritten rule is “borders matter.” Canadian politicians may slag one another as vigorously as they please while they are in Canada. But they do not carry their partisan disputes, substantive or petty, across the border to foreign capitals, foreign platforms and foreign media. Outside the country, Canada speaks with one voice – or should.
Both of these rules have been broken in the past week or two.
First, the anti-haunting rule is generally observed by departing leaders, although there have been exceptions. I’m thinking of John Diefenbaker, who made life miserable for Robert Stanfield for years, and of Pierre Trudeau who emerged from retirement to challenge Brian Mulroney on the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990; the accord died and Mulroney still blames Trudeau.
Stephen Harper made himself one of those exceptions when, metaphorically at least, he shoved Andrew Scheer out of way and seized the leadership of the opposition to the Trudeau government’s settlement with Omar Khadr. Harper went on Facebook to denounce the apology and the $10.5 million paid to settle Khadr’s lawsuit against Ottawa as “simply wrong.”
“Canadians deserve better than this,” Harper said. “Today my thoughts are with Tabitha Speer and the families of all Canadian and allied soldiers who paid the ultimate price fighting to protect us.”
The former prime minister also phoned Tabitha Speer, the widow of the U.S. medic killed in the 2002 incident in Afghanistan, and Sgt. Layne Morris, who was injured, to express the same sentiment to them personally.
Harper intervention undermines the authority of his successor, Scheer, who won the leadership of the Conservative party two months ago, but has yet to demonstrate that his conciliatory style can pull the fractious party together. There is an element in the party and parliamentary caucus that still belongs to the former leader.
They cannot accept that they lost the 2015 election because many Canadians wearied of the Harper style – secretive, manipulative, mean-spirited and often arrogant. They think they can win the next election in 2019 by waging the same kind of negative campaign as in 2015, complete with the racist overtones on immigration issues that emerged toward the end of their 2015 campaign.
These Conservatives look across the border and see how Donald Trump won the White House, and they ask themselves, “Why not?”
The second rule, “borders matter,” went by the boards (so to speak) when Peter Kent, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, wrote an opinion piece for Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, the bible of literate American conservatives, in which he denounced the Khadr settlement and declared it to be “a cynical subversion of Canadian principles.”
The next thing you know, Fox News, Murdoch’s echo chamber for conservatives who tweet more than they read (or think), was into the act, enthusiastically. It invited Michelle Rempel, the telegenic Conservative immigration critic from Calgary, to come to Washington to tell host Tucker Carlson, successor to Bill O’Reilly, the disgraced long-time king of cable news, what Canadians really think of the Khadr deal. “Most Canadians, I think, are quite outraged and quite disappointed by this state of affairs,” Rempel assured him.
Carlson loved the story so much that he invited Sgt. Morris, the wounded serviceman, to tell the story again a couple of nights later.
None of this would matter so much if Fox News were not Donald Trump’s trusted source of information. He’ll come away with a distorted or one-sided view of Canada and its government. This on the eve of crucial NAFTA negotiations with that government.