Doug’s Columns 2006

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, July 30, 2006
ID: 12733984
TAG: 200607300546
SECTION: Comment
1. As a television commentator circa 1961.
2. photo by Jason Ransom,Sun Media
Former prime minister Jean Chretien presents Sun Media columnist Fisher with the Distinguished Service Award at a special ceremony in the Senate in June, 2001.
3. Rene Levesque and Douglas Fisher in 1964.
4. photo by Ken Kerr
Mike Strobel, John Downing, Douglas Fisher, his wife Jeanie Fleming and Sun founding publisher Douglas Creighton at Fisher’s induction to the Canadian News Hall of Fame in May, 2001.
COLUMN: The Hill


It’s time to go, probably past time.
My bent, as I write this last column for the Sun, is to be laconic about it. This skimping on sentiment probably stems from my early life in a railway family and years as an ordinary soldier in WW II. Saying farewells became banal.
My string as a columnist commenting on Parliament began with the late John Bassett’s Toronto Telegram in 1961. When the Tely died in 1971, I moved to the new Toronto Sun, courtesy of the late Doug Creighton, its founding publisher, and editor Peter Worthington — both fine men to work for.
I was an MP — the CCF member for Port Arthur — when I sought to write a column. I did it not because I wanted a personal platform for politicking but because I was drowning in debt from the high costs of being an MP.
We were paid $10,000 a year, with $2,000 more to cover expenses (the highest-paid bureaucrats then got about $26,000). Out of this, we had to pay for two residences — one in our riding, one in Ottawa. We had to pay our considerable long-distance phone bills — including collect calls from constituents!
And although we had unlimited railway travel passes, these only covered the cost of a day coach seat, not a berth for overnight travel. So the frequent trips back to the riding — and driving within the riding — were costly.
What’s more, freshmen MPs were packed two to an office where they shared a secretary — half a day each. I was the first MP in modern memory (in 1960) to ask for better pay and services, for which I was roundly criticized.
My columns went over well enough that I decided not to contest the 1965 election. I moved from House membership to membership in the parliamentary press gallery. Forty years later, I had outlasted all who were there when I joined — reporters and columnists like Charles Lynch (Southam), George Bain (Globe and Mail), Blair Fraser (Maclean’s), Norman Depoe (CBC TV), Judith Robinson (Telegram), Grattan O’Leary (Ottawa Journal), and many more.
I sometimes shudder when I consider how long I’ve been “columnizing,” and how much I’ve written — more than 2,400 columns for the Sun, running past 3 million words.
Any limits on content or opinions were my own. The editors at both the Telegram and Sun were excellent in their restraint when dealing with my copy — except those few times when they worried I might get them sued for libel.
I carried the opposition MP’s mentality into journalism. Over the years, my opinions have been more critical than approving of whatever government has been in power. By choice, I didn’t bring the NDP banner with me, in contrast to the late Dalton Camp, a Progressive Conservative in his columns as he was in life.
Because the Liberals were in power more often than the Conservatives, I’ve sometimes been tagged as anti-Liberal. If I am, it started back in the 1930s in reaction to my father’s deep respect for Mackenzie King and his party, and deepened during the wartime conscription crisis. And aging of course has made me more conservatively-minded.
The arrogance of government, its overwhelming control of Parliament, and the opposition’s weakness were a big theme during my four parliaments as an MP — much discussed on the Hill and in the press. I carried that theme with me to the press gallery and have often written about it.
After nearly 50 years, I can only say that government has become immense, the prime minister’s office is vastly bigger and more powerful, more attention than ever is paid to party leaders and in particular to the prime minister, and the House of Commons — whose weakness we bemoaned back in my time in it — has withered almost to insignificance. Stephen Harper is more supreme and absolute in the government, cabinet, House, and the country than John Diefenbaker was in my first House in 1957.
Today’s MPs are easily as able and hard-working as during the Diefenbaker years — as well as better educated and provided with far better facilities and support services. Paradoxically, they play a far smaller, less important role than MPs of yore, undermined over the years by a hardening of caucus discipline and by the swelling cadres of aides and spin doctors in the offices of the prime minister and the other parties’ leaders.
Diefenbaker and Lester (Mike) Pearson were the last two prime ministers to spend a lot of time in the House of Commons beyond the daily oral question period. In their day there was usually substantial attendance during passage of significant legislation.
Pierre Trudeau changed all that. He was frank in saying that time spent in the House was both a waste and a bore for him. His ministers took his cue, and after 1968 one rarely saw more than two ministers in the House other than during question period. Then evening sittings were ended and an annual schedule for sittings and holidays instituted. Any sense of camaraderie dried up.
The growing irrelevance of the House as the dramatic, dynamic stage of the federal parliamentary system can be traced to this downward shift in attendance and participation. Today, not even the volatility of minority government jacks up interest in what goes on in the House, outside of question period.
Who’s listening anymore to the debates we do have? Very few, although they are televised. Few listen, few report on legislative talk. Instead, the news media and politicians concentrate on the theatrical, often farcical, tussles of question period.
Hansard, the printed record of the House, never sold well. Today it is largely forgotten, outmoded by a televised House and political websites and blogs. In short, the floor of the House is a meaningless stage except during that British parliamentary holdover — the 45 minutes of highly-organized, ultra-competitive nastiness called question period.
The influence of cabinet ministers has declined most of all.
There were 22 in cabinet when I came to Ottawa 49 years ago. By the end of Jean Chretien’s regime, the total was up to 39, a considerable dilution.
Only one ministry still stands out: Finance. No longer do major cabinet ministers dominate a region or a field of particular importance. For years we’ve had no agriculture minister with the reach that Gene Whelan had just 30 years ago, no labour minister as important as Bryce Mackasey. It is unimaginable that we’ll again see a minister as dominant in western Canada as was Jimmy Gardiner from 1935 to 1957, or one like C.D. Howe, all-powerful in the realm of business and industry.
Cabinet government has given way to prime ministerial government, and the main power centre is in the dovetailed operations of the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office. PMO-PCO now has a staff of many hundreds. Compare that to the 20 or so who served Pearson, or the dozen who staffed Mackenzie King’s PMO.
If my comments so far suggest I’m dour and negative about the trends in our politics and government, let me point out that since 1957, governments have been creative and experimental. There has been an immense number of daring and wide-reaching initiatives.
The welfare state was largely completed by the end of the Trudeau period. There were many federal innovations for the economy as well as for culture — art, music, recreation and sport. Scores of federal boards, Crown corporations, foundations, and agencies were created and financed, and beginning with Brian Mulroney’s government, many Crown companies were also done away with.
Ad hoc, non-governmental organizations framed and fostered many of these ideas and programs. As a consequence, it is hard to think of an interest the federal government hasn’t dealt with, from subsidizing kids’ hockey equipment to providing better wheelchair scooters for the elderly.
What’s more, although the House of Commons doesn’t count anymore when it comes to debating important matters such as federal-provincial relations or the fiscal pickle facing Canada’s cities, debates still go on in other forums — among lobby groups and non-governmental organizations as well as at the other two levels of government, provincial and municipal.
In closing this farewell column, I want to ask and try to answer the great question: Where is Canada going?
My guess is that Quebec, so central to our politics during my time, is unlikely to depart (a decade ago, I thought it would).
The demographics on births, immigration, and language preferences forecast a steady slippage of “la francophonie” in Canada. Within a quarter century, I believe the West will be Canada’s most powerful region — the wealthiest, with the most federal clout. Meantime, Canada as a whole should be as prosperous as any country in the world, given our natural resources and people.
If there is any great and immediate question Canadians have to settle in the next decade it is this: How do we come to sensible, workable terms with the most basic animus now affecting our polity, i.e., our rampant anti-Americanism?
If we cannot contain it and divert its force into a national determination to know our neighbours better and make them understand our grievances, we could face organized hostility and major troubles from the U.S.
To conclude. I wince when Canadians brag of our vast land and our superior ways in health care and peacekeeping — because bragging is so un-Canadian.
Nonetheless, at 86 and retiring, I am as positive about our country as I was in my 20s, coming home from the war.
In this century there will be as much opportunity as there was a century ago in the opening up of our West, with the promise of a better society to the fore — if we cultivate our politics sensibly.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, July 23, 2006
ID: 12776933
TAG: 200607230251
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


Although barely begun, it’s clear the 21st century will present Canada with new and very different foreign and defence policy challenges to those faced in the past. A cursory examination of these makes it equally obvious she is currently ill-equipped to deal with them.
In the 20th century, Canada evolved from a colony guided in all her international relations by her mother country to a medium power and member of the world’s most important alliance — a minor player at the big table. We played major supporting roles in two world wars and a less significant part in the Cold War. These were global struggles, but Canada’s participation was largely confined to North America and Europe. Our overriding foreign policy goal for the latter half of the century was maintaining access to U.S. markets while retaining as much independence as possible.
Not surprisingly, Canada’s foreign policy establishment (official and unofficial) and military leadership (in as much as we have one) are European/North American centred. Most diplomatic and military postings are to Europe or the U.S., and relate to our interests with both. Academic programs on international affairs are similarly biased, as is Canadian media coverage. Elsewhere in the world we have tended to be hand-wringing bystanders, offering kind words and a modicum of aid in lockstep with our allies, as conflicts and natural disasters have taken their toll.
Why believe things are changing, indeed, must change?
The new challenges largely involve Asia and the Middle East, where we have few traditional ties and limited experience. Consider that for the first time in over half a century Canada is engaged in active hostilities … in Afghanistan! Why? Because that country’s former rulers, who aspire to govern again, allowed guerrilla training camps there, camps which produced a major attack on North America, killing over 3,200, including almost two dozen Canadians.
Another factor altering our international outlook is immigration. Canada welcomed large numbers of non-European immigrants in the latter part of the 20th century, who brought with them ties to their native lands. As these new communities mature and become more politically active (and they are doing so faster than previously), they are demanding a voice in Canada’s foreign and defence policies. One sign of how much things have changed was made evident by recent events in the Middle East. How many here two weeks ago appreciated that 50,000 Canadians (i.e. a small city) were resident in Lebanon? “Facts on the ground” such as these will inevitably rock the cosy, collegial world of those who shape Canada’s foreign and defence policies. There is more …
The defining theme of global affairs in the 21st century is likely to be the rise of China and India. These populous, ancient giants look certain to become major players — surely it’s only a matter of time. For Canada and other western nations the question is this: How do we adjust to this new reality when we have been dominant for so long?
We have barely begun discussion of the issue. Much is made of the Bush administration’s unilateralism as being a problem in developing a western response to world affairs these days, yet surely this overstates things. It ignores, for example, the stated desire of many western Europeans, and particularly of the French and German elites, for Europe to be an independent actor on the world stage — indeed, a counter to U.S. power — in the wake of the Cold War. So the question arises, do Western nations really have enough interests in common to permit a coherent, coordinated approach to world affairs?
Consider China. Discussion in the West has largely focussed on maximizing the economic benefits from its development while minimizing the dislocations. This common view disguises the fact that Western nations compete against each other in pursuit of these goals. Things are about to get even more contentious, as the U.S. takes a hard, longer term look at the implications of the Middle Kingdom as a superpower. A recent Pentagon report made clear it sees China as the major challenger to U.S. interests and influence in the world. More Bushite paranoia? No. The U.S. foreign and defence policy establishments first attempted to initiate a China debate during the Clinton administration, but this was stalled by 9/11 and subsequent events.
China poses particular challenges for Canada. Arguably it offers more economic opportunities to us than to any other Western nation. Despite our pretensions, our wealth remains largely derived from the sale of resources — forest products, minerals, energy. China’s economic development (like India’s) is driving up the prices for these resources. How do we square our economic interest in selling to China and securing investment from it with our need to be seen as a loyal Washington ally? (For all of China’s promise, the U.S. will remain the key to our prosperity — and security.) How, for example, should we deal with companies owned by the one-party state which seek to purchase Canadian firms and the resources they control — resources the Americans have traditionally looked to for their own economy, and for their own military needs?
Through his visit to Afghanistan, his public statements, and the recent purchase of billions in new military equipment, the Prime Minister has signalled that he sees Canada playing a more active global role in the early 21st century, one closely aligned with Washington. This is likely to prove trickier than one suspects he and his government appreciate. What is more, the underlying assumption behind the Harper government’s foreign and defence policies — that the West remains basically united in its values and interests — looks set to be challenged as never before.
Given all this, if the Harper government really wants Canada to play a leading role in global affairs, it could start by opening up debate here, and with Washington and our other allies, over how can we work together in a world that seems destined to pull us apart.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, July 16, 2006
ID: 12775854
TAG: 200607160293
SECTION: Comment
ILLUSTRATION: photo by Dave Chan, CP
Former Liberal cabinet minister David Kilgour spoke to reporters at a news conference in Ottawa on July 6. Kilgour and Winnipeg human rights lawyer David Matas have released a report of their investigation into China’a alleged organ harvesting from Falun Gong dissidents.
COLUMN: The Hill


So! The eleven aspirants have been two months underway. They have five months to go.
At this point what’s a critic to say about it all, even one who has thought the Liberals could do with some years in opposition?
Thus far the contest seems both complicated and a bore — and doomed to continue that way. There are six to seven “cannot win” candidates and only three or four heavyweight politicians worthy of the country’s time at the December convention.
We’ve had big slates before, think of the Tories in ’67 and the Grits in ’68 — but if you remember, neither race was scheduled to run so long as this one, and most of the contestants had done much to distinguish themselves.
This year’s race won’t get what it most needs — some bail-outs by those candidates who require a real miracle. Who are they? As I rate them, in part from the televised “debates,” in part from what they have shown so far in politics, these entrants are the also rans: Martha Hall Findlay, Hedy Fry, Joe Volpe, Maurizio Bevilacqua, and yes, even Scott Brison, Ken Dryden, and Dr. Carolyn Bennett.
The latter trio each have positives: Brison as an adroit House performer; Dryden as a thoughtful straight-shooter; and Bennett initially as an authority in health affairs and as an exponent of backbenchers’ needs. Nevertheless, none of these three merits shorter odds than 100 to 1 in this race — not even as that rarity in leadership conventions, the unbidden who comes flying from behind on the third or fourth ballot. It tells you something that not even a handful of MPs has yet declared for Brison, Bennett or Dryden. Ignatieff has over 30. Kennedy over a dozen. Even Joe Volpe, so far the self-made pariah of the drama, has half a dozen MPs backing him, plus a fair bag of newly-minted Liberals.
As I see it, the race boils down to this — four men have a possibility of winning, in this order of likelihood: Ignatieff; Kennedy; Dion, and Rae. I hesitate about Bob Rae as number 4. To me it seems impossible that, given good other choices, the Liberal host in Ontario would forget the disaster Mr. Rae was as premier in the course of an agonizing, long, majority mandate.
This seems obvious to me: Ignatieff and Dion have very fine minds and bents towards both analytical and assertive politicking. Dion, in particular, has never been appreciated well outside Quebec and Ottawa as a very successful minister for Jean Chretien. He did well in his continual backfiring with federalist arguments against the separatists.
The sad aspect of Dion’s candidacy is that core Grits outside Quebec do not want a leader from Quebec this time. It is also unfortunate that Dion, who thinks well on his feet in English and has prose as clear as Pierre Trudeau’s, has a high-pitched voice and an oddly stressed pace in English.
The reason Gerard Kennedy, the youngest of the top four, is a fair bet, lies in Dion’s province and Ignatieff’s clear refusal to date to run with the “soft power” foreign policy mob in the Liberal party.
So far Ignatieff has not yet been overrun by the anti-American line which came to the Liberal fore back in the ’80s and ’90s through Lloyd Axworthy. How strong is this anti-American attitude? Very strong! Is it engrained now? I think so. It is neither another Martin folly nor a temporary and understandable response to the bunkum of the Bushites.
If Michael Ignatieff can square himself on this major issue with the core of the party by convention time without appearing to prostitute himself, he ought to be home-free. If it gets away from him, then the younger, less controversial Gerard Kennedy is likely to become the winner.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, July 09, 2006
ID: 12774750
TAG: 200607090368
SECTION: Comment
Substantial legacies
2. photo of TOMMY DOUGLAS
A fine politician
COLUMN: The Hill


Tommy Douglas, thanks to television, has risen to the top of our national heroes’ list for his role in championing public medicare. But the CBC’s much-praised bio blockbuster, Prairie Giant, has now been pulled from circulation because it maligns Tommy’s opponent, Jimmy Gardiner, making him out to have been a small-minded souse.
This bold step by the CBC in support of the truth raises questions of what is “truth,” and what is acceptable although untrue, in depicting our national past.
I watched Prairie Giant when it aired this past spring because Mr. Douglas was as fine a man and politician as I’ve known. His TV portrayal was fairly well done. I was taken aback, however, by the low and sleazy way Jimmy Gardiner was depicted. Much as I cherish Tommy, much as Gardiner was a deeply partisan Liberal, this film wanted too much for him to be the foil, a villain for Tommy to vanquish.
Jimmy Gardiner is one of a handful of the sharpest partisan politicians I’ve ever encountered. Born in 1873, he was a renowned, active Liberal in Saskatchewan from before WWI to 1958. He was premier in the late 1920s and early ’30s, and the federal minister of agriculture from 1935 to 1957. Gardiner was 21 years older than Tommy Douglas, and a 22-year veteran of electoral politics in Saskatchewan before Tommy turned from the pulpit to the hustings. Both entered the House of Commons in 1935.
Jimmy Gardiner saw partisan politics as war, and was full of verve and bite when extolling “Liberalism” and mocking “socialists” and backward “Tories.” I boned up on him in late 1957 after he made a mockery of me during my first speech as an MP. I had been foolish enough, after joshing “Liberal arrogance,” to pause a moment, reaching for a paper on my desk. Into the quiet that fell over the House, Gardiner’s wit shot out in piercing high volume.
“Hey, boy! What are you looking for? The Regina Manifesto?”
It took me months to recover my equilibrium after that shaft. Indeed, after that I often had to wince at cracks about my “manifesto.” That’s because the CCF’s 1935 Regina Manifesto had by then become an albatross for the party, with its demand that the government take over big private companies such as the CPR. Indeed, by 1957, the CCF in Ottawa and Regina was promoting a new “Winnipeg Declaration,” deserting the goal of nationalization.
Jimmy Gardiner never let the home folks forget how “red” the CCF’s Regina Manifesto was. “The most ridiculous piece of political literature ever put out by any party,” he called it.
From a Liberal viewpoint, Jimmy Gardiner was an all-round competent politician. He was a very moral, judgmental man, abstemious, work-absorbed and politically courageous. I could see why he’d planned to run to succeed Mackenzie King as Liberal leader (although the eastern press dismissed him as largely an overzealous western minister).
I soon realized that the CCF’s horror stories about “Jimmy’s machine” and its vile patronage were an attempt to make a devil of him for what was, in fact, simply well-organized partisanship.
His stature can be seen in that over the years, tiny Tommy Douglas took far more shots at Gardiner than at Saskatchewan’s third “giant,” John G. Diefenbaker.
Much as I cherish Tommy Douglas, I believe he was too fair-minded and witty to want to be sanctified by a film production that casts his top rival, Jimmy Gardiner, as an amoral, petty politician, and without mentioning Gardiner’s substantial legacies, in particular to the farmers of the West.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, July 02, 2006
ID: 12133559
TAG: 200607020311
SECTION: Comment
ILLUSTRATION: photo by CN Archives
British PM Winston Churchill met with Canada’s William Lyon Mackenzie King at Charney, Que., in 1943.
COLUMN: The Hill


I’ve been thinking about national apologies.
We’ve owned up to Chinese-Canadians for the discriminatory head tax, and to Japanese-Canadians for wrongs done them in wartime.
Maybe it’s time Canada apologized to the “zombies.”
The “zombies” — that’s wartime slang — were the roughly 60,000 Canadians conscripted into the Canadian army during the Second World War who refused to volunteer for overseas duty. Only volunteers would be sent into the fight abroad, they were told.
This seemed like a fair arrangement when conscription started in 1942 — but not by late summer 1944, when Canadian casualties in France and Italy had suddenly shot up far higher than forecast.
Infantry regiments — the backbone of our five army divisions — were going into battle several hundred men short of full strength.
The question was how to reinforce these outfits quickly, given that there were few men left in Canada prepared to volunteer. The “zombies” were the obvious answer — the “home front” conscriptees who had refused to volunteer and who insisted they would go abroad only by government executive order. Thus developed the “conscription crisis.”
Mackenzie King, prime minister at the time, had assured his Quebec ministers and MPs that conscriptees would not be sent overseas. After all, the war was unpopular in Quebec and many “zombies” were French-Canadians. Now, with overseas regiments depleted, King was under extreme pressure to change his mind.
His new defence minister, General McNaughton, reassured the PM that enough zombies would volunteer to replenish the regiments in Europe. This didn’t happen.
From the start, the zombies had been urged by their officers to volunteer for overseas service. With the manpower crisis, they ramped up the pressure. But most zombies refused. Nor would they be enticed by promises of extra leave or pay.
At the time, I was serving in Europe in an armoured regiment. We could see the infantry’s desperate situation firsthand.
I was also in touch by mail with my best friend, Glen, a “zombie” back in Canada. Glen was a fierce socialist. He wouldn’t volunteer until the wealth of war profiteers was also “conscripted.”
It wasn’t till after the war that I learned from him about the nasty, even devilish range of pressures put on him and his comrades to go “active.” It came not just from army officers. His fellow Canadians had heaped scorn on him as a zombie, and most zombies were mocked as “yellow.”
By mid-November 1944, King’s government faced disaster over the infantry shortage. His ministers were threatening to resign. To save himself, King had to give in. Parliament was called, and approved shipping 16,000 zombies abroad.
Nearly 13,000 of them were sent overseas; 2,400 of them got to regiments “in the field.” They suffered 313 casualties; 69 were killed.
The dead, though few, deserve emphasis. Canada’s national crisis meant death — both for some zombies and for some in the depleted infantry regiments.
King did what he did — arranging that conscriptees would serve only in Canada, then later changing his mind — for that prime of Canadian principles, national unity (and to save his own political skin). We in the army knew the fault for the crisis lay with federal wartime manpower policies. Still, we and a majority of Canadians at home condoned the unfair, mean treatment of at least 60,000 men.
Why has our treatment of the zombies not been seen as grounds for an official apology? Perhaps because the manpower crisis of 1944 was quickly eclipsed by victory in early 1945.
To my knowledge, no one — not even a New Democrat — has suggested an apology, nor any token of redress. Hypocritical, isn’t it?

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, June 25, 2006
ID: 12131870
TAG: 200606261300
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


The new government, sure-footedly led by Stephen Harper, has made it to the summer break with less trouble than most watchers expected. It now has a higher acceptance — one might say “legitimacy” — than seemed possible in late January.
Thinking back on other new governments in Ottawa, it strikes me that Harper has had the most successful first half-session of any new minority prime minister. Yes, more successful even than John Diefenbaker’s, 49 years ago.
But a caution. Today’s Conservatives ought to remember that although Brian Mulroney had a huge majority and got off to a grand start in 1984-85, his government sputtered in less than a year, mostly because of the antics of the Liberal “Rat Pack,” abetted by a limp House Speaker. Sheila Copps, Brian Tobin and gang sustained weeks of noisy, mean and effective personal attacks on Mulroney’s honesty and his ministers.
This past fortnight, about a dozen Grit MPs, most of them newcomers, seemed to mimic the Rat Pack, boldly slanging Conservatives for alleged ethical lapses. If they keep going, Harper will be stuck with Rat Pack II from this fall through to the arrival of the new Liberal leader in January.
That aside, Harper seems to be in the good books of most Canadians, notably with the near-majority of voters without fast ties to a particular party. To them, he looks and speaks as a prime minister should. His poise does not seem posed.
Even those antagonistic to him for his allegedly reactionary social values and his intention to shrink Ottawa’s role in the federation, readily admit Harper and his team will be harder to defeat than they expected late last winter.
Sticking to five priorities has helped: Cleaning up government; reducing the GST; cracking down on crime; paying parents a child care allowance; and working with the provinces on a wait-time guarantee for medical patients.
Add to these that Harper speaks in understandable sentences, gushes less than Paul Martin, and publicly reasons more clearly than Jean Chretien did. He addresses the lunchbox crowd far better than those polysyllabic profundities Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff — indeed, even better than those world-class orators, Stephen Lewis and Brian Mulroney.
The tough-minded among his partisan enemies think Harper is doing well because he so quickly and directly demonstrated that he is boss. He is in charge — of himself, his ministry, and his caucus. He openly follows a strategy of keeping the ball rolling, making progress on his undertakings without moaning about the difficulties posed by a shortage of MPs.
It helps that the exposure of his ministers has not to date resulted in a string of disasters — as Pearson had in 1963, and Mulroney in 1984. Finance Minister Flaherty, for example, comes across as warm, affable, and at home in his portfolio. Four of the toughest jobs are held by articulate, confident persons — Jim Prentice in Indian Affairs, Tony Clement in Health, Vic Toews in Justice, and John Baird at Treasury Board.
Meantime, the opposition uproar over David Emerson switching parties and Senator Michael Fortier’s appointment to cabinet has faded. And, despite all the mud thrown at Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, she looks able enough to redeem herself in the fall with new anti-pollution programs.
A good cabinet is important to a government’s stability. So is a backbench sticking to the PMO’s disciplinary line. But the best thing going for this government — the prime agent of its achievements and standing in the polls — is Stephen Harper, a more engaging prime minister than seemed possible just months ago.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, June 18, 2006
ID: 12129102
TAG: 200606180311
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


This past Wednesday afternoon, Parliament Hill’s twin oracles pronounced that Stephen Harper’s happy days were over.
Two of his youngest MPs, Pierre Poilievre and Jacques Gourde — parliamentary secretaries no less — had given “the arm” to Bloc MPs in the House.
These gestures cast Harper’s government in a very bad light, said CTV’s Mike Duffy and CBC’s Don Newman. Ergo, a crisis. Next up on Duffy’s and Newman’s programs — that most righteous of men, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale. Harper, he said, must demand that these fellows resign their seats!
Funny that the tone of the House should come to this — government MPs gesturing “f— you” to opposition MPs. Five months ago, during the election campaign, Conservatives and Liberals undertook to behave more sensibly in future. That, of course hasn’t happened. This session has been as mean, as snide, as negative as any I can recall.
Who is to blame?
The attitude of Poilievre and Gourde is symptomatic of the larger arrogance of the Harper government. Each day in the House, ministers take the lead from Harper himself and rise in praise of themselves for beating the worn drum of “13 years of Liberal abuse” and “Liberal corruption.” This says more about the prime minister than the Liberals — that he’s a poor winner, that he gloats.
The opposition are at fault, too. The Liberals are divided and seem defeated and demoralized rather than capable of working to a common purpose for a waiting nation. They jump at every chance to be nasty and negative. It’s as though they’re saying, “what have we got to lose?”
Contrast this with the united, far more competent and vigorous Bloc and NDP caucuses. But they too help drive up the temperature because they are competing with the Liberals for the limelight and an aggressive record to carry into the next election.
We can next blame the obvious: It’s a minority House with an easygoing Speaker. Because they tend to be uncertain, minority Parliaments are tense with worry and rancour. A strong Speaker would help — by controlling things. Peter Milliken puts up with a lot of nonsense forbidden by the rules, and his inaction promotes the rancour.
These are the situational reasons for our dysfunctional House of Commons. There are also systemic problems — ways things are done on Parliament Hill that contribute to the breakdown of civility and purpose. In a nutshell, the Hill has become over-big, over-busy, and overly concerned with the trivial.
MPs long ago did away with night sittings, gave themselves free air travel back to their ridings, and voted themselves more money for bigger staffs, eroding the fairly strong threads of intimacy and collegiality across the caucuses. They turned the Hill into a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 operation — like any other workplace — and, from PM to ministers to opposition leaders, backed themselves up with writers, spinners, strategists, and tacticians.
At the same time, the House is almost always short of a quorum except for the grand charade of it all, the oral question period — which MPs themselves are no longer in charge of. Staff plot strategy each day, and write up questions for MPs to ask and answers for ministers to give. As a result, there’s not a spark of spontaneity or reality about question period anymore. It’s an utter fraud.
Now add television and the 24-hour news cycle. Hours of airtime need to be filled, and so we have the triumph of personalities and trivialities over substance. Who’s in, who’s out, who said what? These are now the key questions.
Is the place doomed? No, but improvements are not in sight.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, June 11, 2006
ID: 12126826
TAG: 200606110378
SECTION: Comment
Circa 1938
COLUMN: The Hill


The new biography, Young Trudeau 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada (McLelland and Stewart), is as fascinating a book about politics as we have had in Canada. Covering the first 25 years of Pierre Trudeau’s life, it is clearly a labour of love — and packed with surprises. I marvel at what authors Max and Monique Nemni have uncovered in Trudeau’s own files and wonder how all of us got the man so wrong for all those years.
I was immediately struck by some parallels between the Young Trudeau story and today’s news.
Just last week, police in Toronto arrested 17 Muslim men and accused them of plotting violent acts against national figures and institutions. In Young Trudeau, we learn that during World War II there was in Montreal a ring of French-Canadian Roman Catholics with treasonous aims similar to those alleged in Toronto. And Trudeau, later cherished by many as our greatest prime minister, was its chief planner and manifesto writer — while at the same time holding a second lieutenant’s commission in the Canadian Army reserves!
This incredible story tells how Canada’s “Abraham Lincoln” spent his formative years as a key member of this secret group called the “LX,” dedicated to organizing a revolution. Members planned to overthrow the government of Quebec, separate Quebec from Canada, and set up a French-speaking Roman Catholic republic called “Laurentie.” It was to be a “corporate” state, much like fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini.
How serious was the young Trudeau in his treason? The lawyer for one of the Muslim men arrested last week says the Crown alleges his client wanted to “behead” Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Trudeau was even fiercer! He spoke of “impaling” federal politicians who had abused French Canadians.
Even as we await the next volume in this biography, we wonder what convinced Trudeau to put aside his thoroughly reasoned treason and instead take up democracy, reject violent revolution, and turn his back on Quebec nationalism.
It’s fair to say I remain biased against Trudeau. I believe he was a disastrously bad prime minister. But his official biographers, with admirable honesty, uncover a man very few of his contemporaries knew about. Their shocking revelations confirm, at least to me, why those of us who criticized Trudeau as PM were right in tagging him as a brilliant poseur, a political chameleon.
This opinion began crystallizing for me in 1957. That’s when I first heard about him, from Therese Casgrain, leader of the Quebec CCF (predecessor of the NDP), who was trying to decide which of two very talented young men would be best to lead her party — Trudeau, whom she described to me as a wealthy, stylish, intellectual socialist, or union leader Michel Chartrand. Chartrand, it turned out, was willing. Trudeau slipped away on travels abroad.
There are three topics the authors unfortunately deal with only slightly: His relationship with his mother and her social relations with English Canadians; his romantic and sexual associations with women; and how he, a healthy young man in the army reserves, managed to evade overseas service during the war and instead leave for Harvard in 1944 despite a desperate shortage of infantry, including in Trudeau’s own regiment, which precipitated the conscription crisis of 1944-45.
The big blank about Trudeau’s war service ties in with something else historians of World War II will have to explain: The federal government’s incompetent intelligence when it came to monitoring domestic threats to Canada. Not only did Trudeau speak boldly at public meetings, opposing Canada’s participation in the war, his own files reveal him to have been the key philosopher and planner of a secret group dedicated to breaking up the federation.
How were he and his secret cohorts able to avoid arrest and internment? Their intentions, after all, far exceeded anything in the mind of Montreal’s mayor, Camillien Houde, who was interned for most of the war.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, June 04, 2006
ID: 13037251
TAG: 200606040323
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


Lately the political press has reiterated criticisms of the PM’s “iron control” over his ministers and caucus, describing him as “petulant,” “arrogant” and “dictatorial.” The disrespect is mutual. Many reporters in the Parliamentary Press Gallery don’t like Stephen Harper and he doesn’t like them.
Much of the disrespect dates back to June 2004, during Harper’s first campaign as Conservative leader. When opinion polling late in the campaign predicted an upset win for Harper, a band of like-minded reporters set out in the home stretch almost as if to save the governing Liberals.
CBC radio reporter, Susan Murray, one of those leading the charge, was among the most vociferous in a media pack which pursued Harper at nearly every stop as his campaign drew to a close . (Murray later quit to become press chief for Liberal Scott Brison.) They quoted back to Harper the tough, often scary talk of some Conservative candidates who opposed abortion clinics, same sex marriages, the long-gun registry, and clamoured for a tougher Criminal Code. This demonization put the kibosh on what might have been a Conservative victory.
Now we have the standoff between the gallery and Harper over who is to chair and direct Ottawa press conferences. For years a member of the gallery has chaired such affairs.
In Washington, the president picks the questioners. In the UK, Tony Blair’s in charge. Harper has asserted, in essence, the same authority. He argues that press conferences are his, not the gallery’s. He calls them; accredited journalists are welcome; he or his office will decide who asks questions. Some gallery members petulantly vowed not to ask questions until the gallery again provides the chair and chooses questioners. In effect the PM said fine, I’ll stop holding Ottawa press conferences until you accept that things are done my way.
I’m sure this “boycott” by gallery journalists troubles their bosses. The boycotting journalists should understand that their proud defence of the gallery’s authority to run press conferences could get them fired.
Those who look at the feud as another revelation of a dictatorial tyrant’s bent should stop and consider two initiatives Harper revealed last week. First, four-year fixed terms between elections; then the imminent undertaking to have senators chosen by voters, not the prime minister. These moves would deprive Harper of one of the most treasured prerogatives he has as top man. His stance on fixed terms and Senate elections represents the most substantial reduction of executive powers any prime minister has pushed forward.
But there’s an irony in Harper’s fiddling with Senate reform. An elected Senate will undercut the power and influence of the majority of MPs — the backbenchers — most of whom have yearned for a more meaningful role in governance. The minute senators are elected, they’ll gain a credibility and legitimacy that has eluded appointed senators. What’s more, being members of the upper chamber, and less numerous than MPs, they’ll be more powerful, influential figures. Look at the U.S., where elected senators have always had more power and influence than members of the House of Representatives.
Is this the direction we want to go? Do we need all these elected officials? Would it not be better to deal with the “democratic deficit” that exists in our House of Commons rather than worsen it? Forget reforming the Senate. Harper should take the lead in what will be a long, arduous tussle to abolish the Senate! He could show he’s more democratic than his gallery critics think by giving MPs greater chances to review and report on planned legislation, and to ride herd on spending.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, May 28, 2006
ID: 13036168
TAG: 200605280455
SECTION: Comment
Two hot issues
COLUMN: The Hill


Polls say Stephen Harper would win a majority if an election were held today. This should be of small comfort to the prime minister. Canadian public opinion, driven as usual by anti-Americanism, is firming up on two hot issues — the Kyoto Accord, and the role to be played by Canada’s military on the world stage. The consequences for our politics could be earth-shaking.
For decades the Liberals gutted our armed forces, but were ever ready to send them on peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeping, and pride in Lester Pearson’s Nobel Prize, became the Canadian way. Let the Americans fight wars. We Canadians had found a nobler calling.
Trouble was, the bleeding of our armed forces made a mockery of our commitments to NATO and NORAD. This riled the Americans. And the sparseness of our military made it increasingly hard to be a force even in peacekeeping. What the Liberals did to our military didn’t enhance our world standing.
Then our Liberal governors — having said “no” to joining the Americans and Brits in Iraq — decided they didn’t want to be entirely on the outs with the Yanks. So, in a move that broke with the “blue beret” tradition, Paul Martin said we’d go to Afghanistan, to help fight the terrorists and rebuild that shattered place. We were suddenly back in the war-fighting game.
Next, Rick Hillier, the new chief of defence staff, started talking tough. Promoting a muscular military, he wants his guys and gals to get back to the military’s traditional role — taking on enemies ahead of being the blue-bereted referee.
Finally, Harper came to power, apparently keen to help Hillier, promising more money for a bigger and better-equipped military. Harper thinks Canada will wield far greater influence on the world stage if we show our allies that we’re serious about our armed forces, and about taking up alliance commitments.
Given these developments, you’d think Canada’s military and foreign policy were headed in a new direction. But take a look at the recent House of Commons vote to extend our commitment to Afghanistan by two years. Harper won it by just four votes. If he’d delayed the motion, as his opponents wanted, he’d have lost it. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois were 100% against staying on in Afghanistan. More significantly, a good majority of Liberal MPs voted against continuing what is, after all, Paul Martin’s mission.
Part of Harper’s strategy in rushing a vote was to split the Liberals and give them a contentious bone to chew on during their leadership campaign. I don’t think frontrunner Michael Ignatieff wants a Canadian identity built on anti-Americanism. He believes that the Americans were right to invade Iraq, to overthrow Saddam’s tyranny and give Iraqis a shot at freedom and democracy. He voted “for” extending our mission in Afghanistan (he calls it “peace enforcement”). Can he bring most Liberals around to his way of thinking? Or is he going to have to fudge his views in order to win, and to become PM?
As for Kyoto, Harper is going to find it very hard to buck public opinion. Most Canadians know next to nothing about the Kyoto Accord, but a great many like its righteousness. We’re saving the environment! Even better, Canadians know that the U.S. didn’t buy into it. If the Americans don’t like it, Kyoto must be the right thing to do.
Many Canadians also think that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Kyoto, for good or ill, is the only game in town. Despite its flaws, despite the fact that the U.S. , China and India have not signed on to it, despite the cold truth that Canada will come nowhere close to meeting its Kyoto commitments, Canadians still think it’s better than the vagaries offered so far by Harper.
On both our military’s role and on Kyoto I think Mr. Harper is headed the right way. I believe in a robust military, doing military missions (Ignatieff’s “peace enforcement”). And I think Kyoto has become a fiasco. But most Canadians would disagree. They want peacekeeping, not what they see as American-style Rambo-ism. And they’re for Kyoto, whether it’s worth the paper its printed on or not. Why? Because belief in peacekeeping and Kyoto shows us to be better than our ugly American neighbours. We may be ineffectual. We may lack influence. But by gosh we’re superior. We’re safe atop the moral high ground.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, May 21, 2006
ID: 13035020
TAG: 200605210434
SECTION: Comment
PM’s nominee
COLUMN: The Hill


Oh what a fascinating and brittle week on Parliament Hill.
As the week opened, we knew the auditor general was going to take one of her critical romps through governmental inadequacies and Sheila Fraser didn’t disappoint. Her report revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars have been misspent.
By Thursday, Fraser’s thunder had been stolen by three votes, two that defeated propositions dear to PM Stephen Harper. The third, after a contentious debate, gave him a narrow victory of considerable importance to him.
The first defeat, in committee, was the 6-5 rejection of Gwyn Morgan, the corporate CEO Harper had picked as federal appointments commissioner — part of the PM’s effort to improve the process for selecting and promoting people to high government jobs. Before the vote, there was much piety from the committee’s six opposition MPs. Morgan, they said, was not suitable for the job of vetting appointments because some time ago he made remarks they deemed offensive to multiculturalism. Defeated, Harper simply dropped the whole project until the day when he has a majority government and can make such appointments stick.
The second defeat, this time in the House, was on a Bloc Quebecois motion criticizing the government for deserting objectives set by the Kyoto Accord. After winning, the opposition renewed its ridicule of environment minister Rona Ambrose.
The government’s sole victory — a squeaker — was approval to extend Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan by two years, to 2009. During the debate, the NDP made an unsurprising but major shift in its stance on international affairs. They are the peace party, the anti-war party bar none. The NDP’s predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was led into the Second World War by J.S. Woodsworth, a saintly pacifist. He voted against declaring war, but his fellow CCF MPs voted for it, fearing what English Canada would think of them if they didn’t.
After the war, the CCF’s penchant for extolling peace and being suspicious of military force took hold again. CCFers, as socialists, had been antagonistic to the capitalistic U.S. since the Great Depression. Things have only gotten worse in the NDP’s view. The U.S. is now the world’s only superpower. What’s more, the U.S. is highly critical and sceptical of the CCF-NDP’s beloved United Nations.
So, was there really a shift in the NDP’s stance last week? Yes. We heard unequivocally from New Democrats that our armed forces should not be used for peacemaking (because heaven forbid our soldiers use their weapons!). They should instead be peacekeeping — that gentler, far worthier task.
In short, the NDP wants our troops wearing blue UN berets, not camouflaged Kevlar helmets. In today’s context, this would mean moving our troops out of Kandahar and into Darfur, as they advocate. This fresh NDP position demands a new foreign policy for Canada. Jack Layton and Dawn Black are proclaiming — let our country be a light unto the world; let Canada lead and not follow; let us take our own path, one that builds on our strength (peacekeeping) and reflects to the world the values and principles that define us nationally (the pursuit of peace).
It’s wrong and foolish for Canadian to think we are better than others, especially the Americans. And making our soldiers exclusively peacekeepers is an insult to our past deeds and present capacities. It will decrease, not enhance our standing in the world. Unfortunately, this delusional initiative put forward by the NDP has a sturdy following among the liberally-minded Liberals of Canada.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, May 14, 2006
ID: 12383834
TAG: 200605140474
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


Regarding Maurice Vellacott, the Conservative MP who resigned the chairmanship of the House aboriginal affairs committee under fire for his criticisms of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada:
Vellacott is an earnest Protestant clergyman who represents a Saskatchewan riding with open Christian piety. He had criticized a speech in New Zealand by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. It is unfortunate that he made a mess of what she said. Why?
Because he was on sound ground in criticizing her. Our Supreme Court has become too “active” in instructing governments. The promotion of judicial activism in her New Zealand speech is eminently criticizable.
In fact, the Court has been openly criticized since at least 1985 (see the Singh decision, written by Justice Bertha Wilson) for “activist” rulings which force governments to create costly new agencies (for example, the Refugee Review Board). Critics have included law professors and several MPs of several parties who believe, as I do, that such activism usurps Parliament’s authority, with the court gradually taking over the ultimate prerogative from elected MPs.

Regarding PM Stephen Harper’s alleged meanness to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty:
Harper apparently refused even a mere photo-op of their belated and brief first meeting in Toronto. Then the PM went to an Ontario Tory gathering in the same building and lathered praise on McGuinty’s leading rival, Ontario Conservative leader John Tory. Further, the PM has revelled in friendly meetings, with the premier of Quebec — giving strong indications that he favours a new fiscal arrangement between Ottawa and the provinces but without noticing McGuinty’s repeated laments that Ontario taxpayers are being fleeced, with too much of their money going to “have not” provinces.
Remember, well before Harper became prime minister, McGuinty was publicly wailing to then-PM Paul Martin about the unfairness to Ontario. He’s still wailing. Why wouldn’t Harper ignore him, given that the PM has told all the premiers that his government is ready to work with them on a fresh arrangement for splitting the tax take?
It seems stupid for McGuinty to stake out his ground this way — unless he’s playing pure politics, knowing he has a better chance of winning the coming Ontario election if he’s running against Harper rather than Tory.

Regarding the most probing criticism I have read in years of our primary and secondary school system:
Peter H. Hennessy is a former high school teacher, principal, and professor of education at Queen’s. In From Student to Citizen: A Community-Based Vision for Democracy (White Knight Books), Hennessy sets out what he thinks has gone wrong with our schools since World War II — centralized, all-powerful educational bureaucracies that kill local initiative; teacher trade unionism that has destroyed professionalism and turned teachers into assembly-line workers; and province-wide standards and a mania for measuring outcomes that has left our children buried in useless and oppressive homework and confronted by daunting, province-wide examinations.
Hennessy says the system is not geared to kids and learning at all; it’s geared to bureaucrats and teachers and to making kids into cogs that fit our economic machine. He thinks we have to rid the system of its control by bureaucracies and trade unions.
I agree. This is “real history.” Anyone who remembers the Bob Rae and Mike Harris years in Ontario will better understand things after reading this book.

Regarding the Liberal leadership race:
It is now apparent, more than six months from the finish, that the clear favourite is Michael Ignatieff. He would have to goof hugely to lose the edge given him by his philosophy, policy ideas, and argumentation.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, May 07, 2006
ID: 12381526
TAG: 200605070351
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


A federal budget is usually dead as a news headliner within three or four days of its unveiling.
Occasionally, certainly not often, a crisis follows its tabling which puts some budget items in jeopardy and sets the government to mending or excising (Walter Gordon’s first budget in 1963, or Allan MacEachen’s National Energy Program budget in the early 1980s).
Almost as rare as a quickly-failed budget is one that is still seen to be a winner the weekend after delivery. We have an example of such in Jim Flaherty’s first budget.
Of course this budget has been criticized on many grounds, but the criticisms have been laced with backhanded compliments. It has been called “politically expedient,” for example, and as significant for the Conservatives’ electoral plotting because it creates the illusion for voters — who usually think of budgets as distant and forgettable — that here is one which benefits them.
But there is huge frustration among the many who will never approve of Harper’s Conservatives that this budget ignores certain matters they deem hugely important.
One is Paul Martin’s Kelowna Accord for a redressing of the still horrendous aboriginal situation. Another is the Liberals’ national child care scheme, which was intended to establish a new, nationally-regulated fourth level of education, completing our school system from cradle through university.
These two Liberal initiatives would not be mere one-time “hits” on the federal treasury. They would be costly to taxpayers in perpetuity — interweaving federal and provincial funding, services, and standards. Yet nowhere have the Conservatives said how they intend to proceed with either program.
There is one broad hint. The budget paper, “Focussing on Priorities,” touches on, “use of the federal spending power in areas of provincial responsibility.” It closes with this critical summation: “The combined effect of increased federal spending in areas of provincial responsibility, and a lack of focus in areas of clear federal responsibility, has been to raise concerns over increasingly blurred lines of accountability that make it more difficult for Canadians to determine which order of government should be held accountable for specific policies and initiatives.”
On aboriginal matters, it notes: “Substantial resources have been provided for aboriginal people since the deficit was eliminated (a decade ago). Despite this, significant pressures remain for further investments and for increased accountability, and to ensure these investments become more effective at addressing the needs of aboriginal communities for adequate water, schools, housing and other services.”
In short, the new government knows that in spite of steadily increasing spending, band-managed schools are an abysmal failure and reserves continue to suffer from low-grade housing, health, and sanitary services. First Nations young people know this too. They are voting against the whole mess by leaving, moving to the nearest cities.
It is early to make this favourable judgment, but Jim Prentice, the new Indian affairs minister, strikes me as the best-informed and well-intentioned such minister ever. He is certainly the first who seems ready to acknowledge that natives in the city present emerging problems as serious as those on reserves — poor education, lack of skills, addictions, etc.
It has been politically incorrect for some years to question why so many First Nations communities suffer from such terrible shortcomings — unless to blame the federal government. It has likewise been risky to say that there is value in at-home child care by a parent or parents. The Conservatives seem willing to risk being politically incorrect in many of their policies.
Their budget is not deliberately provocative to native leaders nor to daycare advocates, but they are provoked by it. For those who have prayed for “tough love” in aboriginal affairs and who don’t want a fourth level of education, this budget represents a long-in-coming facing up to realities.
I like it.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, April 30, 2006
ID: 12379282
TAG: 200604300448
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


Remember Joe Clark’s bold beginning in 1979? He was the new conservative PM with a minority who was going to govern as though he had a majority! History says this was a stupid mistake, an enormous misjudgment that set him up for a fall — defeat of his first budget by the combined opposition of Liberals, New Democrats and Creditistes.
Are Bill Graham and the Liberals hoping to skewer Stephen Harper the way Allan MacEachen skewered Joe Clark in 1979? One wonders.
Liberals have already said they’ll vote against the Harper government’s first budget, to be presented Tuesday. If the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP join them, this House is gone. We’d be into a June election with the Liberals headed by an interim leader. This would make a mockery of the huge cast already on stage to compete for the Liberal leadership — and would confound most voters (Decima reports 41% now support the Conservatives, putting them 15% ahead of the Liberals).
Right now most sideline observers think Harper’s budget is as safe as in a church. Defeating the government so soon doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s interests. However, those watching the recent sittings of the House know how fractious and fragile it is. Already we have the spectacle of one side, then the other, giving fatuous standing ovations to deride opponents. Meantime, the PM plays up his reputation as a “one man show” by answering most of the questions (doing rather well with brisk, sometimes ironic replies.)
Of the House behaviour in the seven minority governments which I recall, none has turned so quickly as this one to petty hypocrisy and bitter spite. The savage mood is heightened by the news media’s clear determination to challenge and harry the prime minister and his crew.
Before Clark’s now-fabled defeat, most pundits were sure there’d be no such crisis for a year or more. This is much like the state of opinion today — that there’ll be no defeat for a year or more and certainly not before the Dec. 2 Liberal convention.
But this could be wrong. There is still much pride and cockiness in the very substantial remnant of Liberal MPs. There is also the vigorous determination of Jack Layton and his new caucus to zealously pursue noble social causes. And while the Bloc, well-handled by leader Gilles Duceppe, seems the most likely of the opposition groups to keep Harper going until well into 2007 (past a Quebec provincial election), that could change if this week’s budget doesn’t have enough for Quebec — particularly to redress Canada’s “fiscal imbalance” or to help pay for Quebec’s impressive but costly child care program.
The late Stanley Knowles, the famous authority on House procedure, always maintained MPs should vote for or against the government’s measures on their merits, not to avoid or to trigger an election. If today’s three opposition caucuses followed Stanley’s advice, the coming budget would be doomed.
All three, for instance, have similar, vicious critiques of the Conservatives so-called child care allowance. Liberals and New Democrats also mock the Conservative promise of a minuscule reduction in the GST. And all three opposition caucuses want to know what Harper’s government is going to do to help forestry and agriculture. If the budget doesn’t include several billion dollars to sustain them, there may be wrath enough across the land to turn the opposition against it.
There will also be opposition grumbling over Harper’s forestry centrepiece, the long-awaited deal with the U.S. on softwood lumber he triumphantly announced on Thursday.
This long-running problem and what, if anything, it means to future trade, could escalate the risk of trouble for the first Conservative budget, much like the national uproar which shook down Walter Gordon’s ill-starred budget of 1963 and factored in the defeat of John Crosbie’s of 1979.
Almost every political “stakeholder” group in the country seems to have a stake in this budget. Many fear they may lose out in how the federal purse is divided. All this during a period of imbalance in media commentary which is hostile to Harper. This budget’s approval is a very dicey proposition.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, April 16, 2006
ID: 12005075
TAG: 200604160377
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


In 1987, the same Professor Michael Ignatieff who now seeks to lead the Liberal party prefaced his family saga, The Russian Album, with this quotation by Amy Clampitt:
“… in what shape was it we first perceived it — the unstanched hereditary thing, working its way along the hollows of the marrow …”
When one mulls over the recent political past and present, it is striking how much “the hereditary thing ” has been in play — far beyond the remarkable family connections of Ignatieff’s once-Russian father and his Canadian mother.
For example: Paul Martin Sr./Paul Martin Jr.; Pierre Trudeau/Justin Trudeau; Elmer Mackay/Peter Mackay; Ernest Manning/Preston Manning; David Lewis/Stephen Lewis/Avi Lewis; Romeo LeBlanc/Dominic LeBlanc; Frank Stronach/Belinda Stronach.
Ignatieff’s bloodlines have clear links to Marshal Kutuzov, the strategist who forced Napoleon’s terrible retreat from Moscow. His great-grandfather, Count Nicholas Ignatieff (1832-1908), was the Czar’s key agent in acquiring eastern Siberia and much of lower central Asia; his grandfather, Count Paul Ignatieff (1870-1945), was education minister in the last Czarist cabinet.
On his mother’s side — the Grants and the Parkins — Ignatieff is connected with two of the most prominent families in Canada’s history. George Grant, the late philosopher, is an uncle and the author of the most famous of Canadian regrets, the runaway bestseller of the 1960s, Lament for a Nation.
But Ignatieff concludes the book by examining a vital core belief of his paternal grandmother, Natasha Ignatieff. She and her five boys escaped Red Russia and captivity, probably death. She brought the family by way of England to live in Quebec. Her grandson admires her staunch purpose but he doesn’t accept her strong “belief in roots.” He wants no “unstanched hereditary thing.”
He writes: “I do not believe in roots… Too much time and chance stand between (my grandparents’) story and mine for me to believe that I am rooted in the Russian past. Nor do I wish to be. I want to live on my wits rather than on my past. I live ironically, suspicious of what counts as self-knowledge, wary of any belonging I have not chosen.”
If he still believes this, it seems clear that Ignatieff wants to be considered for our top role in politics based not on his ancestry but on who he is and what he has done and said publicly. Were it otherwise, how could he reconcile the contrasts he sketches between his great-grandfather’s notoriously hard-nosed values and ruthless deeds and his grandfather’s moderate, socially-concerned views?
This approach seems sensible to me and I think Liberals should take note of it. They are emerging now from their grim experience of Paul Martin II, son of Paul Martin I. That alone should make them stop them pressing Justin Trudeau to come forth and assume the leader’s mantle that his father so masterfully wore for so long.
Paul Martin I was a superb orator, shrewd judge of political equations and the mandarinate, the best-read politician of his times. He was a heavyweight. His son proved not to be.
So Liberals should be wary of believing the myth many of them are creating that Justin Trudeau is a reincarnation of his father. He is young, handsome, and personable, but he may also be a political lightweight. Does he have the political qualities of his father and of his maternal grandfather, Jimmy Sinclair? Or is he more like his mother, Margaret?
What Justin has by way of his dad is wealth. That is of some importance in pursuing the leadership. Paul Martin II had money, too. It did nothing to help him overcome indecisiveness, poor judgment, and thuggish counsellors.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, April 09, 2006
ID: 12002663
TAG: 200604090383
SECTION: Comment
Able PM
COLUMN: The Hill


With a new season of national politics now in full swing, let me offer three rankings of some federal politicians — Liberal leadership aspirants, Conservative ministers, and opposition MPs of note.
First, the expected Liberal contenders, ranked by the odds I would set for them, from the favourite to the longest-shot:
1. Michael Ignatieff (Odds 4:1) — An exceptional mind and lots of poise; 2. John Godfrey (6:1) — Informed, reform-minded, cities-centred; 3. Gerard Kennedy (8:1) — Young loaded with drive and talent; 4. Joe Volpe (8:1) — Will have big, hard-won gang of delegates; 5. Ken Dryden (10:1) — Has to put over national child care as his mission; 6. Denis Coderre (15:1) — He’s really staking out a future run; 7. Scott Brison (15:1) — Clever chap, but his income-trust e-mails blew away shorter odds; 8. Bob Rae (25:1) — The “worst Ontario premier” tag is a killer; 9. Stephane Dion (30:1) — Honest, rational, maddening in English; 10. Carolyn Bennett (100:1) — Likeable, kind-hearted, caring; 11. Maurice Bevilacqua (100:1) — Deserves better but no flare!
Now to the Conservative ministers. First, those most vulnerable to attacks in the House are: David Emerson (Trade), given his startling switch from the Liberals and his too-thin skin; Peter MacKay (Foreign Affairs), with his penchant for fuzzy talk and giving one man’s opinion on party positions; Stockwell Day (Security), deserving resurrection for good behaviour but still self-righteous; Vic Toews (Justice), also most righteous and a logic-splitter; and Gordon O’Connor (Defence), whose mastery of defence “history” reminds one he was a lobbyist for years after being a tank force leader.
The ones least vulnerable, and in time unlikely to be regularly taunted by the opposition are: Stephen Harper, a PM who can (like Pierre Trudeau) take care of himself; Monte Solberg (Immigration), well-liked for his kindly wit and sharp insights; Bev Oda (Culture), tough, stubborn, blunt, and honest; Jim Flaherty (Finance), who will walk on water for a few years because of his coterie of approving, business stakeholders; Tony Clement (Health), confident and very familiar with the field; Chuck Strahl (Agriculture), whose folksy directness is reminiscent of the farmers’ famous champion, Gene Whelan; Diane Finley (Human Resources), whose patient aplomb will help her handle harrying about child care; John Baird (Treasury Board), who is astute, aggressive, with a huge familiarity with Ottawa; and Lawrence Cannon (Transport), whose presence and acute awareness of what’s going on remind me of Marc Lalonde, Trudeau’s former lieutenant.
In sum, this cabinet is not trouble-proof, but still stronger than any we have had in years.
Finally, here are some Opposition MPs to watch:
Liberals: Bill Graham, the spirited and shrewd leader; Derek Lee, a veteran Scarborough MP and arguably the most savvy of all about federal politics; Mauril Belanger (Ottawa-Vanier); John McKay, another Scarborough MP and one of the few consistently thoughtful debaters in the House; Dan McTeague, another Scarborough MP, who is good on his feet and a broker between parties; Bonnie Brown (Oakville), as able an MP as one can find; Ralph Goodale, ex-finance minister and Irwin Cotler, ex-justice minister, both motormouths who in opposition could become stars; and Ignatieff, the next Liberal saviour — if he soon realizes he’ll make more impact through talk in the House than by chasing the leadership from one coffee klatch to the next.
Bloc Quebecois: Gilles Duceppe manages his flock superbly. He has good backing, particularly from Michel Gauthier, Yvan Loubier, Real Menard, Monique Guay, and Paul Crete.
NDP: Several MPs have the makings of Hill stars, in particular Charlie Angus from Timmins, Yvon Godin from Acadie-Bathurst, Peter Stoffer of Sackville-Eastern Shore, and Brian Masse (Windsor West). While Jack Layton continually over-praises his own and his caucus’s performances, he has had some fine backing from veterans Bill Blaikie (now deputy speaker), Judy Wasylycia-Leis, and Libby Davies — and he has half a dozen new female MPs, several of whom are tagged as comers, not least his wife, Olivia Chow.
In summary, three caucuses are rather well-fixed for House work. The fourth — the Liberals — are lighter than many think.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, April 02, 2006
ID: 12000404
TAG: 200604020519
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


Stephen Harper and the Parliamentary Press Gallery are badly out of tune over media access to cabinet ministers.
Should we see in it, as the PPG does, ominous, even frightening portents for Canadian democracy?
As usual, my approach starts off historical. How did previous prime ministers get along with the PPG?
During the Liberal hegemony of Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, from the end of World War II until 1957, these prime ministers were very much to be seen in Ottawa when Parliament was sitting — but seldom made themselves available to reporters in scrums or formal press conferences.
This didn’t matter so much, because in the time before television’s saturation coverage of politics, there was real cabinet government — not the “leader” government and politics we have today. Prominent ministers like C.D. Howe, Lester Pearson, Jimmy Gardiner, and Paul Martin Sr. were themselves major newsmakers, speaking both for their departments and as regional Liberal party linchpins.
Back then the press gallery was much smaller and dominated by print journalists. Television didn’t emerge as a big factor until and after the 1957 election campaign when John Diefenbaker defeated St. Laurent. That’s when gallery membership shot from fewer than 80 to more than 200 in just three years.
Tension developed between the print and the new television reporters because the number of scrums in and around the buildings exploded, pushing the print people to the periphery. Television won out, in part because of the rowdy House crisis of 1968 — when the Liberal budget was defeated but an election avoided because Tory leader Robert Stanfield bought Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s line that an election would cause the collapse of the dollar. That’s when TV cameras first barged onto the hall apron outside the chamber. They’ve been there, and dominant, ever since.
With cameras now on daily watch immediately outside the chamber, reporters could buttonhole emerging MPs. Indeed some MPs, such as Svend Robinson “trolled” for a chance to comment. More importantly, reporters could now scrum the prime minister each day as he started up the stairs to his office if he or she was willing to play along. Most were.
This is the situation today on the eve of this new parliament. That’s why I say ignore the current friction between the PPG and PMO. It’ll be forgotten tomorrow when, almost certainly, reporters and politicians return to their now-traditional — and symbiotic — relationship. Harper and his MPs are not going to stop talking to the cameras because that would mean leaving the field open to their rivals in the opposition parties.
There is another connection between the press and Harper that will endure — the copycat twin TV shows broadcast each day, Mike Duffy’s on CTV and Don Newman’s on CBC. Politicians fall all over themselves to sit down with Mike and Don, for obvious reasons. Even the PMO and leaders’ offices get involved, putting up so-called party “strategists” and shadow cabinet figures. Journalists also cherish Don and Mike because they get to go on air as “experts” and be players.
All of this creates a pattern of gossipy intimacy on the Hill by bringing everyone together — politicians, their surrogates, and journalists.
The trend to intimacy grows. We now have the weekly Hill Times tabloid, well-read on the Hill, for its close-in coverage of the social and political doings of politicians and their profuse staff. Add to this the proliferation of blogs by both politicians and journalists and we have an enormous mass of political opinion, criticism, and speculative gossip. We now have, in fact, a media monster that is squeezing our national politics into a personality game — a game that is politically-correct and weak in both ideas and hard debate.
More than ever the Hill is a realm for bluffers and BSers.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, March 26, 2006
ID: 12788656
TAG: 200603260456
SECTION: Comment
ILLUSTRATION: photo by Murray Brewster, CP
Six squirming kids in a wheelbarrow welcomed at a clinic held by Canadian troops Friday in the Afghan village of Ghani Kalachah is the image Canadians like to have of their military.
COLUMN: The Hill


House of Commons debates on global matters are nearly always a disappointment. Get ready for another flop. The opposition caucuses want a debate about the role being played by our armed forces in Afghanistan.
The 2,200 troops there are fulfilling a commitment made by the Martin government. It is one which was both discussed and approved by the previous House of Commons. So why another House discussion?
The plain, main answer is that Canadians are growing uneasy about the extreme dangers to life and limb in this mission. Many believe that Canada’s particular national “gift” is that we are peaceable, with a distaste for muscular patriotism and warrior bombast. Yet this assignment is more than just war-like — it is war, and as General Sherman is alleged to have told graduating cadets, “I tell you, war is hell!”
After five years of a George-Bush-led America (three more to go), many of us are hung up on our aversion to his regime, on our recent military associations with the Americans, and on the fact that the U.S. is the most significant pillar of our prosperity. Canadians want, yet hesitate, to get into a long, frank discussion about what kind of military we ought to have and what kinds of missions it should take part in.
Many of us want Canada to be an agent of good deeds and high ideals — a nation proud of its moral superiority, especially over the United States. For these folks, Canada ought to be a peacekeeper, not a warmaker. They detest the idea of militaristic “hard power.” Better, they think, to spend Canada’s money promoting social and economic progress in the world than on risky soldiering and high-tech weapons.
But then they get to worrying about how our allies will react. Would Canada still be welcome at forums such as the G8 and NATO? In the end, our kinder, gentler crowd have fudged the issue by paying lip service to our military alliances while denying our military the means to be an effective fighting force.
There is a similar hypocrisy behind our current mission in Afghanistan. When Jean Chretien decided not to join the Americans in Iraq, he noted that we had already made a commitment to Afghanistan and therefore didn’t have the wherewithal to help in Iraq.
But in making that commitment, Chretien effectively stuck Canada with an open-ended mission to stabilize and rebuild that country.
He didn’t fully appreciate that this would mean a continuing military role in a real theatre of war — where now our troops face a growing insurgency using brutally effective techniques learned in Iraq, such as suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.
And so the coming debate will be much more seized with the human costs of our internationalist duty than a year ago.
This time, MPs of all parties should seek to clarify what their respective parties want from our armed forces. The prime minister needs to flesh out Conservative thinking on our foreign policy, particularly on our international relationships in NATO, NORAD, the UN, the Commonwealth, and the Organization of American States.
As for our military’s needs, MPs should spell them out so that they are consistent with our aims. This is sure to mean more soldiers, sailors, and air crew — matched with the means to airlift them to hotspots of our government’s choosing.
The leaders of the Bloc Quebecois and NDP will likely support the present mission but stand against similar future obligations if they are U.S.-led and have war at their core. They would favour greater independence in our global actions, perhaps even Canada “going solo” to help those in need.
The Liberals’ Bill Graham has the most explaining to do, given that members of his own party are now questioning the Afghanistan mission that they launched.
Like PM Stephen Harper, Graham needs to set out what use should be made of our armed forces, what his party sees as our military’s needs, and what the ideal force of the future would be.
Sadly, the tradition of the Commons on military matters is for woolly talk and unctuous piety, not for clarification. Perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised — but don’t bet on it.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, March 19, 2006
ID: 12787374
TAG: 200603190461
SECTION: Comment
Tommy Douglas, shown in 1983 with the Parliament buildings in the background.
COLUMN: The Final Say


The Tommy Douglas movie on CBC last week stressed his leadership of medicare during his time as Saskatchewan’s CCF premier, from 1944 to 1961. The actors playing Tommy and Irma Douglas made a good fist of the roles marked out for them but the emphasis on medicare above all else shortchanged viewers of the enormous and diverse worth of this couple.
There was so much more to Tommy and Irma than medicare, and much more to his political career than the Saskatchewan years. Don’t forget that he was a federal MP from 1935 to 1944, and again from 1962 to 1979. In short, he was a zealous, busy MP for a pushy, minor party through two long stretches totalling 23 years, both before and after his 17 productive years as premier of Saskatchewan.
From 1962 to 1965, I was an MP in the federal NDP caucus which he led. I found Tommy to be as sound, smart and hardworking as any citizen I have known. In my opinion, he deserved to be picked “The Greatest Canadian” in last year’s CBC program of that title.
In my long political experience, I have seen only a handful of true “greats.” Beyond doubt, Tommy belongs among them, an extraordinarily gifted man. Unfortunately, that didn’t come across much in the movie.
For example, as premier of Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas led the country in professionalizing economic and administrative matters in government by recruiting advisory talent, drawing an astonishing talent pool into Regina from both academe and big business. In 1964, after Ross Thatcher and the Saskatchewan Liberals ousted Woodrow Lloyd’s CCF-NDP government, this talent pool left and spread across Canada.
Governments in Ottawa, the Maritimes and Ontario rushed to hire such top quality advisers. There has been a lot of praise for the glorious “Golden Age” of Ottawa’s mandarins after WWII, but the goings-on in Regina from 1944 until Thatcher became premier were at least as important in raising the standards of economics, taxation, and administration in Canadian governments at all levels.
The Douglas regime in Saskatchewan also deserves praise for supporting balanced budgets and, where possible, pay-as-you-go financing — ideas very attractive to those who were otherwise hostile to the CCF and socialism (i.e. big business and supporters of “free enterprise” government).
When Tommy returned to Ottawa and sat near me in the House of Commons, I was bowled over by how informed and current he was on so many aspects of governance, enlivened by a courageous readiness to be humourous and calm in the face of persistent criticism from the free-market folk.
Almost any sensible analyst of government in Canada will concede or recognize that on balance, Ottawa and most of the provinces are led today by government parties best defined as social democratic rather than conservative or liberal. This is another of Tommy’s legacies. Even Stephen Harper, this past year, has steered the renewal of the Conservative Party away from the right, into the popular, social democratic centre. There, they join the Liberals, the Bloc and the NDP.
In short, both in Saskatchewan and Ottawa, Tommy Douglas pioneered much more than medicare. Through the decades since 1944, Saskatchewan’s politics have remained as lively as any in the country.
What most fascinated me was Tommy and Irma’s unity and wholeness as a political couple, and the strength and shadings this gave him as a leader. I saw this up close when, with a few others in an NDP group, we toured West Germany in the mid-1960s.
As a pair, they had a high awareness and understanding of each other, all without hand-holding. Indeed, together or apart, they were largely impersonal with others in their company, although courteous. They were more at ease together than any other political couple I have watched — yes, perhaps even more than Aline and Jean Chretien.
I found Irma to be as quick a learner, as shrewd an appraiser, as droll a humourist, as relaxed about the passing show as her husband. They could on occasion be excellent conversationalists but they were never garrulous.
I never heard Irma addressing a big crowd at length, but I wager she would have come near to matching Tommy. And he was the ablest parliamentarian I ever heard.
Tommy Douglas was a Canadian politician for the ages and not the least of his worth was his modesty about himself and his attainments. In my imagination, Irma cast that particular mould for him.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, March 12, 2006
ID: 12786139
TAG: 200603120434
SECTION: Comment
2. photo of JOHN GODFREY
3. photo of BILL GRAHAM
COLUMN: The Hill


Week by week, Stephen Harper ensures his regime won’t last the year, maybe even the summer.
This prompts me to a personal rating of some in the bountiful crop of Liberals who have been scouting their prospects as his replacement as PM.
I have considered factors like age, bilingualism, career and/or political experience. Potential candidates in their late 50s or their 60s have an age handicap; those who can’t speak conversational French are moderately handicapped; and successful, in-depth political experience is highly valued.
My penchant is for well-educated, well-spoken thinkers who do not play to the mob. If Frank McKenna or John Manley were to reverse and join the race, they would Nos. 2 and 3 on my list, which follows, in descending order of my view of their potential:
1. Michael Ignatieff, 58: A bit too old to be getting into politics but he has a first-class mind, potentially the Liberals’ best since Louis St. Laurent. An articulate, sensible, forceful man, a world-class journalist, a leading academic. He speaks well and confidently.
2. John Godfrey, 64: Maybe too old, too uneasy in French, and too Toronto “arrogant,” but the ablest recent herald in Ottawa on behalf of our cities. He ought to have been put in cabinet in the ’90s. He is devoted to the party and could heal it.
3. Bill Graham, 67: Far too old and a likely one-termer but otherwise the most impressive ex-minister in this Parliament. He tends to be peremptory and impatient but takes clear, strong lines and explains them well.
4. Bob Rae, 58: Has the cachet of Oxford and the gloss on his good citizenship comes from smooth volubility and a gift for simplifying. The Liberal Party is capacious but too many of its members may remember what a sorry premier of Ontario he was when a New Democrat.
5. Gerard Kennedy, 42: Not well-known even as Ontario’s education minister, he is, however, young and — with Nova Scotia and northern Manitoba in his past — has some experience of Canada. Handsome, wholesome, bilingual, knowledgeable about welfare and education.
6. Scott Brison, 39: Blowback from his e-mails to a banking pal prior to the income trust affair may knock him from the race. He otherwise scores well, especially in smart, snarky partisanship. He has presence in both languages and likes to perform on stage. His brand is flair and vitality.
7. Stephane Dion, 51: A principled ex-professor, almost a beacon of fair play and effectiveness in the later Chretien years, he merits notice despite a trembling voice and diffident presence. Much like Ken Dryden, not one to generate a crusade.
8. Ken Dryden, 59: A bit old, and short on French, his hockey hero status makes him familiar — but when he speaks, he loses listeners, though his reasoning is often convincing.
9. Joe Volpe, 59: A former educator, 18 years an MP, several years a minister, a gregarious, well-organized man. No star as a speaker but serious, patient, and very confident.
10. Denis Coderre, 43: Although not slim, he reminds me of Jean Chretien — quick, hyper-energetic, cocky, opinionated and bossy. He revels in partisanship.
11. Belinda Stronach, 44: She’s got so much — money, looks, unwavering assurance. But no content, no magnetism.
12. Maurizio Bevilacqua, 46: Good work as an MP and parliamentary secretary. But not a barnburner on his feet and doesn’t seem to have a vision for Canada.
13. Dominic LeBlanc, 39: The right age, good looks, races along in English or French, has a long experience with politics and the country as son of Romeo, ex-minister, ex-governor-general. But he hasn’t his father’s heft or craft.
14. Carolyn Bennett, 56: Kindly, heart-in-the-right-place medical doctor and dedicated idealist. She seems, however, prone to confusion when in messy circumstances and makes them worse with stubbornness.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, March 05, 2006
ID: 12764910
TAG: 200603050340
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


In just four weeks, Parliament Hill will be flowing again with MPs. The new parliament, like the old one, is a minority. The government needs the backing, of some opposition MPs.
My impression is that Stephen Harper’s first Parliament will be snarkier and far dicier than Paul Martin’s, one foredoomed to an even shorter life.
Let me begin with the higher reaches of the bureaucracy. There is general relief that the dithering Martin is gone, but they badly want the Liberals back in charge soon. They think Harper is stubborn, proud and impatient, and going too fast in delivering on his campaign promises. Gosh, he is even charging ahead with his plan to have senators elected!
Further, I think we are close to a quiet revolution by the bureaucrats, harking back to their Golden Age in the 1940s and 1950s. Witness that, now Paul Martin is gone, revered retired stalwarts of the bureaucracy like Arthur Kroeger are openly attacking Justice John Gomery’s recommendations on accountability, transparency, and relations between political ministers and neutral deputy ministers. I think senior mandarins see Harper as serious and intelligent but also as too narrow in his thinking about national programs.
More deadly is Harper’s manifest distaste for what passes here as political reportage and commentary. Most of the Hill press corps, especially the women, seem to believe deeply in the federal government’s responsibility for setting and maintaining social values. Already mistrustful of Harper, these negative, even hostile reporters and pundits share the common goal of taking him down before he goes too far.
Liberals, meantime, can see an advantage for them in the Conservatives’ recent emergence in Quebec. The tentative Tory-Bloc Quebecois collaboration is already under stress.
Maybe that’s why the Liberal caucus, speaking through its leader, Bill Graham, is ultra-militant and talking willy-nilly about voting down the government. Almost every current Harper proposition needs opposing, and if that opposition happens to be abetted by the Bloc, out goes Harper and the Liberals regain office by winning an election, much as happened in 1980 when Pierre Trudeau won back the PMO from Joe Clark.
Graham’s toughness is echoed by many Liberal MPs, particularly but not wholly by those considering a run for the leadership. They radiate what I’ve always thought of as Liberal arrogance. Liberals, no matter how grim their future seems, know deep in their souls that their party is Canada’s natural governing party. It heartens Liberals to set forth what they save us from.
Firstly, they believe they save us from too much of America. Peacekeeping — yes, they are proud to sponsor it. Fighting insurgents in distant places — no, they are apprehensive about such dangerous missions. Second, and more important to most Canadians, Liberals have and will stand against those who would rip apart our universal medicare.
Third, Liberals will put up a strong guard against moves by the right that would vault us back to the bad old days when abortions, same-sex marriages, even homosexuality were illegal. Fourth, Liberals will save us by repairing the damage the Harper Conservatives may do by axing the “long gun” registry.
Fifth, once Harper is ousted, the Liberals will reverse what they see as the cheapskate family allowance scheme promised by Harper and bring back the burgeoning child care program which emphasizes education of pre-school children.
The scenario shaping in the House for April is considerably less constructive than that of Paul Martin’s time. Conservative purposefulness is high but matched by the Liberals’ belief in their own, even higher calling. To put it mildly, all this makes the coming House most unstable.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, February 26, 2006
ID: 12763763
TAG: 200602260375
SECTION: Editorial/Opinion
COLUMN: The Hill


Widespread use of House of Commons committees to check spending estimates, examine proposed legislation or to study particular issues only began in the late 1950s. Almost every committee since has been a cockpit of partisan rivalry, much of it petty and negative.
It started in 1958 when the Diefenbaker government had to find something to do for its huge caucus of 207 MPs. The answer was to multiply working committees from a handful to more than a score.
In each committee the practice quickly firmed of dividing each MP’s time for questioning or commenting into five- or 10-minute bits. In short, committees did not let their chairmen lead the questioning or confine it to a definite line. Unable to develop a theme, opposition MPs tended to declaim, make charges and heap scorn. At their core, House committees became partisan tilting pits.
By contrast, in the British parliament and the U.S. House and Senate, a committee chairman has authority to do much more than merely preside. In both places, counsel backed by researchers set out and sometimes take the floor in developing evidence and getting answers from witnesses. British legislation in committee is handled almost neutrally.
In Ottawa, committees only rarely gel into a unified team determined to get the whole story. This may happen tomorrow in the examination of Judge Marshall Rothstein, newly chosen to join the Supreme Court.
But more likely, MPs will be instructed, via the PM and justice minister, to block any harsh or personal “attacks” by opposition MPs on the appointee or his record — and the hearing will be a bootless exchange of cream puffs and mud pies.
One of our remarkable parliamentary eternals is the extraordinary discipline exercised by the PM and his office over pliant ministers and backbenchers.

Speaking of the prime minister, it’s my view that political reporters aggravate their own agonies by damning and whining over Stephen Harper’s disinterest in (and even disrespect for) the press gallery.
We saw this situation before, when Pierre Trudeau was PM. He proved he could prosper at the polls, be widely respected and widely detested elsewhere, and have a remarkably long run of 16 years at or near the top without either playing favourites or eating humble pie with journalists.
Over time the media mob came to accept it; many liked it. Although Trudeau and I shared a distaste for each other, I wound up believing his scorn for the press was one of his top assets. For many Canadians, their true tribunes are aloof PMs like Trudeau and Harper, not the stars of the press gallery.

Finally, a word on the Liberal leadership race: Parties are best served when there is a host of 10 or so leadership aspirants. They create a harrowing but popular and revealing process, far more than a small cast of two or three competitors do.
In 1968, the Liberals’ Trudeau beat out eight rivals. So did Progressive Conservative Bob Stanfield in 1967, and Joe Clark in 1976 beat out 11. In each race, early favourites went awry. For several years after these conventions, the parties prospered from the high membership and public interest they galvanized.
This year’s run to succeed Paul Martin now seems likely to draw as many as 11 aspirants just from among elected MPs — Maurizio Bevilacqua, Scott Brison, Stephane Dion, Ken Dryden, John Godfrey, Dominic LeBlanc, Denis Coderre, Belinda Stronach, Dan McTeague, Joe Volpe and Michael Ignatieff.
Add possibles from outside the caucus like Bob Rae and Buzz Hargrove and the Liberals could have a barn-burner convention and update their long-held tag as our “natural” rulers.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, February 19, 2006
ID: 12762480
TAG: 200602190323
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


More than any other topic, child care is likely to be a parliamentary destroyer, given the cues last week from interim Liberal leader Bill Graham.
Liberals will work to defeat Stephen Harper’s government if it tries to kill the Liberals’ “nearly-a-done-deal” daycare agreements made with the provinces. And they, plus the NDP and the Bloc, heap scorn on Harper’s plan for a much simpler, cheaper alternative.
There is an enormous chasm between the two leading parties in their thinking on how Canadian parents should be helped to cope with caring for their pre-school-age children.
If ever an issue cried out to be the central debate in an election campaign, this is it. And it still may be so if this minority government loses the confidence of the House.
Not that child care wasn’t discussed during the recent campaign, but after Harper announced his $100/month allowance plan for each child under 6, Liberals preferred to assault him on abortion rights and same-sex marriage — the one a red herring, the other so much less important to our future.
For Liberals, a universal, comprehensive program of child care and child development programs fits in with universal programs such as unemployment insurance, health care and a national pension plan. They argue that with so many working women needing child care, with kids in poor neighbourhoods at risk, with existing daycare such a patchwork of private and public facilities and standards, it’s time for action.
But their vision of the “nanny state” goes far beyond daycare. They envisage a national pre-school school system for kids aged 2-5 — in effect, the completion of the Canadian educational system, managed by provincial governments but sustained in part by regular federal funding.
The plan ain’t cheap (though its actual dollar costs are hard to come by). In what Paul Martin’s government worked out, signing deals with nearly all the provinces, federal coffers would pay $5 billion over five years.
Ken Dryden, the Liberals’ social development minister, told the House of Commons, “While it is a large amount of money, it is a modest amount in terms of a system.”
And this is only the beginning. Wait till all the necessary early-childhood teachers get trained and unionized!
In Quebec, the province furthest ahead in early childhood care, a system begun by a previous Parti Quebecois government is enthusiastically backed by the current (Liberal) government. It costs about $10,000 a child per year. Nearly 200,000 kids are already enrolled. Do the math — that’s nearly $2 billion a year! Yes, Quebec parents pay $7 per day per child, but that still leaves the system about $7,000 short per child.
The starkly different Conservative plan would give money to parents, not the provinces. Some might use it to pay for babysitters, others to pay for daycare. Others might choose not spend it on child care at all. The plan can hardly go ahead, however, if the three federal opposition parties stop it.
Citizens who prize frugal yet competent government need to demand more information. How many children are likely to benefit from the child-development plan? How many will remain at home with a parent? The comparative pricetags of the two very different philosophies should be projected.
The federal government had better not undertake to fund beyond a recognized level because costs could so easily explode. And in fairness to the stay-at-home parent, something from the federal cash pot should go to him or her, too.
No province has yet required that children attend government-run child care from ages 2-5. One wonders, though, if it won’t one day be compulsory given the argument by advocates such as Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, that such facilities will produce better adjusted, more productive citizens.
A few months ago, Dryden said daycare development had been “stagnant in the last 10-15 years.” Why? There wasn’t enough money available to turn “babysitting” operations into high-quality early learning and development centres.
In the next election, this issue may decide the winner.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, February 12, 2006
ID: 12165080
TAG: 200602120401
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


I thought Stephen Harper was sharper than this. Apparently not. He has made an unelected man, Michael Fortier, a senator — after saying future senators would be elected, not appointed. Then he put Fortier, along with turncoat Liberal David Emerson, into his cabinet — bypassing a clutch of very able MPs in his caucus.
The prime minister’s explanation seemed moderately reasonable. He needed strong ministers from Vancouver and Montreal. On examination, this explanation is hogwash. What’s more, the uproar these appointments have created is now so memorable as to be a problem “with legs.”
Yes, senators have been given ministerial assignments before — Robert de Cotret (1979), Bud Olsen (1980) and Ray Perrault (1982). But Fortier isn’t a mere minister of state, he’s been given an important, highly political line department — public works — scene of recent Liberal sponsorship shenanigans. The forum where ministers should answer for their departments is the House of Commons, not the Senate.
And MPs have crossed from opposition into cabinet before — Hazen Argue (1962), Jack Horner (1977) and Belinda Stronach (2005). But switching party allegiance for a cabinet post within a fortnight of being elected? That simply isn’t fair to electors in Vancouver Kingsway, where David Emerson campaigned and won their confidence as a Liberal. It is not as though Emerson was a scintillating star on the Liberal front bench, an asset that Mr. Harper couldn’t ignore.
There are big holes in Mr. Harper’s argument that he needed ministers from the inner cities of largely Liberal Vancouver and Montreal. If so, why, no senator-minister from that biggest of Liberal cities, Toronto — where the Tories were shut out? Why did he pass over a superb ministerial candidate in his own caucus to represent Greater Vancouver — 29-year-old James Moore (Coquitlam-Port Moody-Port Coquitlam)? Indeed, why the glaring omission from his cabinet of his top parliamentary talent — exhibit No. 1, Diane Ablonczy, the very best Mr. Harper has?
One plausible explanation for the prime minister’s gambit comes not from him but from columnist Chantal Hebert. Big business, she suggests, was looking for another horse to ride now that the Liberal Party has thrown a shoe. Indeed they have been increasingly unhappy with the Liberals under Paul Martin. Harper was on to this and appointed Fortier to public works, Emerson to international trade, and Jim Flaherty to the crucial department of finance. This is Harper’s “wink” to the business establishments in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, reassuring them that the Conservative Party is their new natural home. Hebert’s contention makes sense to me.
The condemnation of this unusual pair of appointments reminds me of another uproar. In 1963, after Lester Pearson came to office with a minority. His new finance minister, Walter Gordon, had declared that “Sixty Days of Decision” would culminate in a budget of immense importance for keeping Canadian corporations out of foreign hands. Then, despite a long-standing tradition of tight secrecy around the budget, Mr. Gordon reluctantly had to admit in the House of Commons that he had asked outsiders — a trio of young Bay Street men — to help prepare his budget. The opposition and editorialists immediately seized on this as evidence that budget secrecy had been made a laughingstock and that secretly letting corporate Canada into the finance department had left the budget open to the possibility of unfair exploitation.
There are two similarities between the uproars then and now. (1) Prominent ministers in new government, fresh from years in opposition — the prime minister in today’s example — made bad decisions on their own, without serious vetting by caucus stalwarts. (2) I predict Mr. Harper will suffer the same consequences as Walter Gordon. He is unlikely ever to recover the credibility he had just a fortnight ago as an ethical and astute politician. He will need phenomenal luck to escape the blot now on his judgment and integrity.
Do you recall these lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
Stephen Harper may well have missed his tide at the flood; his miseries seem sure to be prolonged.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, February 05, 2006
ID: 12162480
TAG: 200602050388
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


Now that so-called “first-tier” prospects have declined to run, many political reporters seem to think the Liberals are now largely bereft of leadership talent.
I would argue there are still some promising alternatives in the new Parliament’s Liberal caucus. None is perfect for the job, few may covet it, but all have been useful politicians.
Let me review thirteen of them.
Maurizio Bevilacqua, 45, an independently-minded man, has spent his mandates as an MP (since 1988) mastering public finance, seemingly grooming himself for either the ministry of finance or the prime minister’s office, or both. While not a spell-binding orator, he is lucid and sensible.
Scott Brison, a 38-year-old Tory turncoat, is as good as the Liberals are going to get as a House of Commons performer, one who can play both offence and defence and who has wit and a mean streak.
Denis Coderre, 42, a super partisan from the Liberals’ Quebec establishment, might be described as a male Sheila Copps or as scrappy as Jean Chretien. He has full range in English, particularly in contrast to another ex-minister who may well enter the race, Stephane Dion.
Irwin Cotler, 65, recently minister of justice, is an exceptionally glib man with a huge vocabulary and self-confidence. He is a remarkable talker, willing to tackle any political subject. He is expert in three realms — Quebec, Canada, and the world. In short, he thinks himself a polymath.
Stephane Dion, 50, although thin-skinned and outrageously dialectical at times, is candid, genuinely learned and he has refused to give an inch to Quebec sovereignists or those who would devolve federal responsibilities to the provinces.
Ken Dryden, 58, is a paradox, immensely well-known as a hockey star who later showed “egghead” attributes researching and writing about education and training for youth. He is serious, occasionally profound and no fool. That said, he hasn’t much flair and is flat when debating.
David Emerson, 60, from B.C., is an economist, an ex-provincial bureaucrat, and an ex-CEO in the banking and forestry sectors. New to the House in 2004, he has neither wowed in the chamber nor excited the scads of stakeholders who surround the industry department. But he is likeable, plain-spoken, and seems a capable fixer and broker.
Ralph Goodale, 57, is a veteran MP who didn’t make a smashing impact on Canadians until, as Paul Martin’s minister of finance, he proved so wonderfully defensive. A smooth shield, he radiates righteousness and clarity. He obviously has a thorough grasp of federal institutions and financing.
Michael Ignatieff, 58, a new MP from Toronto’s west end, is surely as mentally gifted, world-seasoned, and self-assured as Pierre Trudeau was when he became an MP in 1965. His mind is just as well-stocked as Trudeau’s with arrays of themes and opinions on governance, constitutions, and nationalism.
Dominic LeBlanc, 38, a burly, handsome, talkative young Liberal from a New Brunswick riding, differs from his father Romeo, a former governor general and long-time cabinet minister in the Trudeau era. The son is immensely energetic. He has slugged along in the House as a dog’s body for government House leaders.
Derek Lee, 57, is a lawyer and has been a Toronto MP since 1988. Through four mandates, he has rated as one of the most engaged and best-informed parliamentarians. He has certainly been the most knowledgeable, articulate analyst of House activities, and is much sought for advice.
John McKay, 57, and a lawyer, has been a Scarborough MP through three parliaments and one of the ablest parliamentary secretaries, backing up the minister of finance. He is well-spoken, courteous, succinct, and determinedly candid and fair.
Dan McTeague, 43, is a splendid MP from the 905 fringe (Pickering-Scarborough East) who from his start in the House has pushed ideas of his own. At times he strikes one as having bents similar to Derek Lee’s but he is more aggressive and less droll. A very able MP!

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, January 29, 2006
ID: 12160173
TAG: 200601290400
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


Leaders and MPs of all four parties should be sobered by one consequence of the election — the uncommonly high number of incumbents returning to the House. There are 225 of them and only 83 freshmen.
I say “sobered” because, to be blunt, most of these old hands return tainted by the uncivil and poisonously partisan antics of the last House. Thanks to them, citizens by the thousands lost whatever respect they had for Parliament and any hope that it could be positive. These MPs will be tempted to replay the squalid behaviour they grew accustomed to.
Why? Opposition MPs may want to prevent Stephen Harper’s new government from appearing productive. Government MPs may wish voters to see how opposition obstructionism makes a minority Parliament negative and unstable, giving the government a chance to argue that they need a majority.
The temperament and behaviour of this new Parliament will depend to a considerable extent on whom MPs elect to be their speaker. An obvious nominee would be the previous speaker, Liberal MP Peter Milliken. First elected to the position in 2001, he was re-elected by acclamation in 2004.
But I hope he doesn’t stand and if he does, that he is defeated. Although a charming, civil man, learned in procedure and bilingual, Mr. Milliken has been completely ineffective at controlling the daily oral Question Period. Milliken has been responsible for letting MPs get away with the out-of-control, nasty, partisan antics, which in turn makes him responsible for Canadians’ very low opinion of politics and politicians.
To be more specific in my charge, Peter Milliken chose not to stop MPs from loading the front end of their questions with long assertions of wrongdoing or incompetence on the part of the government or stressing in their answers the stupidity or wrong-headedness of the questioner — even though House rules forbid this kind of behaviour. One must go back two decades for examples of a speaker stopping MPs short when it has been apparent that their questions are really intended to be nasty or demeaning statements.
Another example. Since the 19th century the parliamentary rulebook has said that the same or substantially the same question cannot be put more than once in any Question Period. No rule is more often broken that this. The rules also forbid judgemental assessments of any member’s person or conduct. There might as well not be such a rule.
We have the example unfolding in the NHL that it is possible to alter a game that used to reward brute force into a game where the rules that have always been there are strictly enforced by referees — with better hockey as a result.
Where is one to turn for the same thing in the House of Commons? Who will be the paragon of courage and fairness, enforcing the rules, encouraging MPs to give up much of their partisanship, guiding the House with a firm and neutral hand?
The sharpest bilingual veteran on the Conservative side is James Moore, turning 30 this year and already the fastest tongue in the House. Leaving aside “bilingual,” my first choice would be longtime NDP MP, Bill Blaikie. Unfortunately, he is the best orator in the place. If he were speaker, the House would be robbed of hearing his speeches.
I think, too, of well-liked and well-respected Conservative MP, Chuck Strahl, if his health allowed it. Or Diane Ablonczy, to my mind the ablest Conservative parliamentarian.
Of course, a speaker prepared to enforce the rules is just part of the equation. Setting up a more polite and productive regime will require preliminary agreements by the party leaders and the backing of their caucuses. That won’t come easily.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, January 22, 2006
ID: 12560425
TAG: 200601220345
SECTION: Comment
Paul Martin Sr. gives his son a kiss when Martin Jr. announced that he was running for the Liberal party leadership in 1990.
COLUMN: The Hill


This is my post-mortem on the political life of Paul Martin Jr., who is poised to lose tomorrow’s election.
It is about both Paul Martins, son and father, and the father’s posthumous success in that his son became prime minister, even if it was for such a short time. The son’s inadequacies did him in.
After I became a CCF MP in the 1957 election, no other veteran of the House gave me more good counsel and encouragement than the MP for Essex East, Paul Martin Senior — elected consecutively 10 times from 1935 through 1965.
During his second run for the Liberal leadership, in 1958, which he lost by a big margin to Lester Pearson, Paul Sr. told me that his chances were poor because Mike Pearson had been ordained by the party elders.
Why? They thought Pearson, the former external affairs minister, would resonate better with the Canadian public because he had been awarded the Nobel peace prize for his leadership in solving the Israel-Egypt crisis.
Further, Martin, the longtime minister of health and welfare, made party brass nervous, in part because he was so smooth, so “slick.” They felt he was the most radical of all the King and St. Laurent ministers, always pushing for medicare and more generous pensions.
Pearson, therefore, had ample help from on high in gaining the leadership; Martin had problems raising both money and open support from colleagues.
Through the next few years, I realized that Paul saw his son and namesake as the way to redeem his own crushed leadership bids of 1948, 1958 and 1968. At university, Paul Jr. was intensely interested in politics. Paul Sr. was determined to shape this zeal, ensuring his son would have a better chance than his dad.
Paul the father had come to electoral politics a poor young man; his son would not be poor when he ran for Parliament. He would get a good legal education, then spend some years in business, making enough money and contacts to be secure and independent.
From 1957-65 (my years as an MP), I heard how well Paul Jr. was doing at school. In 1966, Paul Sr. told me his son had been called to the Ontario bar. Then I heard he’d been hired as executive assistant to Maurice Strong, the successful young head of Power Corporation. (Paul Sr. had helped Strong get a high-level role at the UN — where he retains a prominence of sorts today.)
Through the Trudeau era and after Paul Sr. left politics, I heard more from him on his son’s rise in Power Corp. Its new head, Paul Desmarais, gave him executive roles in a subsidiary, Canada Steamship Lines. Oh, how proud father was of his boy as a corporate CEO!
The last long talk that I had with Martin Sr. about his son was in 1981. The statesman was adjusting to retirement after four decades of public service, and writing his autobiography. He told me then son Paul was considering running federally in Montreal. In 1988 he eventually did — and won.
I was surprised two years later when Junior contested the Liberal leadership. On an opposition backbench loaded with loudmouth young Liberals like Sheila Copps and John Nunziata, young Paul had made a modest, sensible contribution as MP, but he was not a strikingly lucid or clever performer like his dad, and his bid much underestimated Jean Chretien’s appeal to the party and Canadians.
When the Liberals came back to power in 1993, it was no surprise that Chretien made Martin Jr. his finance minister. After a quiet start, he began to build a broad reputation as a very pleasant, sound, and able minister. When, by 1997, the big deficits era was closed and a start made in reducing the national debt, many outside Liberal ranks began to esteem him a genius.
As his surpluses and the national fascination with him grew, it also became clear to all that Martin Jr. was more than just dreaming of the leadership. He had a mighty plan to cinch it, based on attaining control of the executive in several hundred Liberal riding associations.
Mindful of how pleased his father would have been, I praised the son in print as one of the greatest ministers of modern times — and thereby helped create the Paul Martin legend.
I was puzzled when, after he had been PM for about a year, a lot of voters began to see that his “vision” was rather incoherent. He went into the 2004 election as “the juggernaut” but escaped with a minority House and then handled it almost as poorly as Joe Clark had back in 1979.
Tomorrow, the seven-decades-old saga of father and son in pursuit of the Liberal crown enters its last and briefest phase. The Liberal Party is now in a mess. Here the saga fades out — unless, of course, Paul Martin III or one of his brothers wants to take up the mission!

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, January 15, 2006
ID: 12557918
TAG: 200601150463
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


As a clear Conservative lead showed up in the opinion polling this past week, who hasn’t wondered just how far it might go?
If it holds, does the Conservatives’ margin guarantee them a minority government or maybe a majority — reflecting, say, the shocking boom in Quebec for Stephen Harper?
At this point, it would obviously take an amazing about-turn on the part of voters for Paul Martin to come back as a majority prime minister; it would take a big turnaround just for him to get a minority.
Many have suggested, particularly since the last televised debates, that if polling continues to show a Conservative lead as wide as 10 points over the Liberals, Harper might end up with a majority. I had said this even before last week’s debates, because I saw and heard many small things that reminded me of the final days of two earlier election campaigns — those of 1958 and 1984, when Progressive Conservative leaders (John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney) suddenly shot past what had looked like narrow wins over the Liberals (Mike Pearson and John Turner) to roll up majority totals.
I would concede, however, that thus far there have only been hints of voters worshipping Harper. The scenario is still much more that the public that has lost its patience with Martin, seeing him as the empty head of an arrogant, partisan gang who have been at the federal trough too long.
Still, let me be an early bird again this week by suggesting it is not impossible that the determination among Canadians to have a change in government may well produce something truly phenomenal. Not just a finish which has the Conservatives holding 185-200 seats, but one that consigns the Liberals to fourth place in the House of Commons ranking — behind both the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democrats!
To repeat, among truly federalist parties, the Martinite Liberals might well wind up falling from first place to third. Their only consolation would be continuing to control the Senate, but that would last only until the governing Conservatives decided what to do about having senators elected by voters, not handpicked by the prime minister of the day.
It is now obvious that in February, Harper is likely to be sworn in as prime minister. Where will the NDP fit in? It is a long shot but not impossible that Jack Layton will return with as many or more seats than the Liberals. Don’t scoff! Remember, the Liberals fell to as low as 40 MPs in the 1984 election, and New Democrats (under Ed Broadbent) shot as high as 43 seats in 1988.
One slight indication that New Democrat attitudes are changing came last week when Layton joshed that Martin wants Canadians to believe that if the Liberals don’t win, “the sun won’t rise, spring won’t come, and volcanoes will destroy the Earth.”
This is a departure for the NDP. They and their CCF predecessors have historically viewed the Tories or whoever was on the right as Public Enemy One . This article of NDP faith has gotten them nowhere.
Instead of going after their greatest ideological enemy all these years, they should have gone after the party that governs so much of the time, the one that has, like the NDP, identified itself as liberal and left.
Perhaps the time is at hand when the New Democrats, working hard in a parliament led by Conservatives, will be able to show that they, not the Liberals, deserve recognition as the alternative governing party.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, January 08, 2006
ID: 12555477
TAG: 200601080295
SECTION: Comment
COLUMN: The Hill


A fortnight plus one to go, and it’s looking like a Conservative win ahead! This is a good time to ask a few questions:
If Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are elected Jan. 23, will they have enough talent among their MPs to staff a cabinet of good quality? Yes, there are already more than enough just from among the incumbent Conservatives who are sure to be re-elected.
The Liberal cabinet, of course, would have been stronger had Paul Martin not passed over a lot of talented Liberal backbenchers. Instead, he has relied on a small cadre of unelected counsellors — i.e. the Scott Reid, David Herle, Elly Alboim crew from Earnscliffe. They have had more influence than any of the Martin ministers.
Will Harper take us back to cabinet government? The cabinet used to be the buckle that bound a government together. In a genuine parliament, the prime minister would share the limelight with cabinet ministers, not hog it. Ministers would spend far more time in the House, upping the importance of debate. Backbenchers would fill visible roles in both the chamber and in House committees, which would take on a real oversight role, scrutinizing legislation and spending. In short, the government would be constantly accountable to the people in the House of Commons.
I’m not optimistic we’ll get this even in a Harper government. Martin says “I” instead of “we” when talking about his government, but Harper so far matches him in this presidential-like primacy. Would Harper be just another “one man” juggernaut as prime minister?
My hope, however, lies in Harper’s promise to make true accountability of government his No. 1 goal. He emphasized this last week. Such reform requires a determined prime minster — starting with an open admission that we are already well along the road to a presidential style of government, but without the checks and balances the American system has.
Several years ago, Martin brightened Canadian democrats by undertaking that once in the PMO he would rid Canada of its “democratic deficit.” Then ugly happenings intervened. Very loyal Liberal MPs on the House finance committee turned to the usual partisan stonewalling to prevent concerted exposure of the embarrassing AdScam affair. The “democratic deficit” has since disappeared from among the Liberal leader’s favoured cliches. This is a danger that would face Harper, too — the primacy of partisanship when trouble comes calling.
There is confusion, speculation, and much turnover in federal posts when an opposition party comes to office after years in the political wilderness. In 1979, this turmoil helped turn Joe Clark from hero to fool in 10 months. The turmoil will recur post-Jan. 23 if Harper is prime minister.
He will find a lot of the mandarins wary and the official opposition seething and sullen. He will need open, careful and sturdy lieutenants to manage any adjustments he makes to the parliamentary system and the senior bureaucracy. Presently there is a void in both. The chamber is not a significant forum. The bureaucracy is dispirited and negative.
PMs John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chretien, and Martin all declared their love of the Commons and the “cut and thrust” of debate. None, however, spent much time there. Each instead behaved not as though the PM was the first among equals but as though he (or she) was the be-all and end-all of authority and decision.
We badly need some devolution of power and less sycophancy from those who attend the PM. Before voters crown the young leader, he should tell them how he would change the relationship between his executive and the House of Commons.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2006, SunMedia Corp.

DATE: Sunday, January 01, 2006
ID: 12553562
TAG: 200601010142
SECTION: Editorial/Opinion
COLUMN: The Hill


For years I have previewed the coming year in federal politics. That task is more daunting this year than ever.
We don’t know which party will form the government after the Jan. 23 election. If it is the Conservatives, there will be colossal changes through a tremendous shakeup in personnel and appointments and the adjustment we’ll all have to make to a rather reticent prime minister — a type we haven’t seen since Louis St. Laurent. If the Liberals hold on to power, I foresee more of the same Martin “vision” as we’ve had all year.
My own hunch is that enough people want the Liberals out for a while to bring about a Conservative victory. If so, Stephen Harper will be the big political story of 2006.
Since this prospect is so speculative, I turn to the four subjects I have always felt must be prime in any serious discussion of the federal scene. In order of their priority in our history these are: (1) fear of a depression; (2) Canada-U.S. relations; (3) national unity; and (4) federal-provincial relations.
Unemployment has been well down for several years. The booming American economy is one reason for this. But there are some signs of grave trouble ahead for the U.S. economy.
The Big Three carmakers have started massive layoffs across North America. If GM, Ford, and Chrysler sink any more, it will kick hell out of our sales of steel, nickel, etc., not to mention our auto parts industry. In addition, American and world demand for our paper products is dropping. Paper mills are being closed down across Canada. This already augurs more unemployment than we’ve had since the mid-90s.
Most urban Canadians have no idea how much our economic health is based on forest products. They are the muscle and blood of the Canadian economy — and not since the late 1930s has the industry faced such a grim immediate future.
Unemployment, therefore, is almost sure to rise in 2006. If the American economy is on a slide by Labour Day, we are likely by next New Year to be entering our first substantial recession since the late Trudeau years. I hope I’m wrong; I’ve always forecasted election outcomes better than economic performance.
As for Canada-U.S. relations, whatever George Bush’s faults from a Canadian perspective, he is the U.S. president we have to deal with until late 2008. This means our current prime minister, given all the antagonism he has created, will have to think hard about his U.S. strategy if he remains PM.
Yes, Martin could continue to play rough and tough in the name of national integrity and with a view to fostering greater independence from the U.S. economy — but that is a risky strategy. The midterm elections are likely to be very hard on the Republicans, making Bush’s final years ever turbulent. If so, Canada will be paid even less attention and we are likely to face troubles even worse than we faced over softwood lumber and Mad Cow disease.
Harper, of course, faces the same “American problem” if he becomes PM. One hopes that he would be more able than Martin to persuade both the president’s men and senior congressmen to treat Canada better.
Fortunately, for national unity, there can be no referendum until Quebec’s Liberal government is defeated and replaced by a Parti Quebecois government, which will be determined to hold the crucial vote as soon as possible. In other words, we’re looking at a referendum in 2008 at the earliest, and more likely 2009 or 2010.
The year ahead is therefore unlikely to be an intense one, especially if we have a new Conservative federal government. With very few Quebec seats, Harper would be likely to concentrate on some kind of civil working relationship with Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc to get him through his first year. If Martin continues as PM, again facing a well-led Bloc caucus, there is no doubt we’ll have a snarky, negative House of Commons.
Perhaps a Harper government will take a new, frank approach to Quebec. The fact is that after decades in which Quebec has been the centre of national attention, few Quebecers seem interested in Canada beyond Quebec’s borders, not even about the fate of French-speakers in New Brunswick and Ontario. And we in the rest of Canada, after twisting this way and that to accommodate them, are not much interested any more in Quebec. Maybe Harper can help us at last face up to our disinterest in each other and bring an end to the grand self-deceptions in official bilingualism and multiculturalism.
As for federal-provincial relations, including the debate over Senate reform or the more crucial one of fiscal equity, Ontario’s premier has already prompted a federal demand for a new deal on tax-sharing and equalization payments. If he becomes PM, Harper would almost certainly arguing that such reform is a way to convince a good majority of Quebecers not to leave Canada.
I have not mentioned what for me is the most significant question in this appraisal of key Canadian factors: The competence and cost-effectiveness of the federal government. We have a parliamentary system supposedly based on an executive and cabinet working within Parliament, held accountable by requiring the confidence of the House. In the past 40 years power has flowed to the PM. We have not had genuine parliamentary government. As a result, Ottawa today is prodigal in spending and incompetent in much of its operations and service.
The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 2005, SunMedia Corp.