Friday, May 19, 2006

Harper winning skirmishes, but risks losing public trust

VICTORIA - The first spin was that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives had won political victories around big issues in the last week.
But it looks just as much as if Harper has revealed critical weaknesses that could give the Liberals new life in the next election campaign.
The Conservatives were slicing and dicing on an extended commitment to the war in Afghanistan, the unfair abuse dished out to Harpers' choice to head the new commission on public appointments and the firearms registry.
In each case the government scored some political points. But in each case it treated Parliament, and thus Canadians, with heavy handed disdain. Harper demonstrated that once he thinks he's right Parliament and public opinion don't much matter.
It's exactly the kind of thing many voters already feared about him.
Start with Afghanistan.
Harper wanted to extend Canada's commitment to provide troops, which was to end next February, for another two years. He called a surprise debate in Parliament - MPs had two days to prepare, gather the views of their constituents and consider what the situation in Afghanistan might be in two years. Harper limited it to a few hours. And he indicated he would not be bound by the vote.
A "tactical triumph," one commentator called it. The vote passed and the Liberals were split on the issue, with leadership candidates on both sides.
But where's the triumph? Canadian troops have just been committed to a long, deadly mission with no real public discussion of the risks to them, the support they will need and the chances of success. Instead of seeking a full debate and making a strong case, Harper opted for political cleverness on an issue that demanded better.
The Liberals were divided, which the Harper team will emphasize during the next campaign. But their MPs were allowed to vote freely, hardly a bad thing.
Next consider Harper's response when a Parliamentary committee rejected his choice to head a new accountability agency to watch government appointments and make sure merit and not patronage was the big factor.
The committee's decision was a travesty. The opposition members grilled retired EnCana CEO Gwyn Morgan about past comments that had nothing to do with his ability to handle the job, which he had agreed to take on for $1 a year. They focused on his observation that immigration raises social issues, referring to people who "come from countries where the culture is dominated by violence and lawlessness." Hardly a radical observation.
Harper was miffed. His response was to abandon entirely the promised accountability commission to oversee appointments, an act of presidential petulance.
Finally, there was the gun registry.
Conservatives mostly hate it, partly because many rural Canadians have never accepted the idea that they should have to register guns as they do vehicles and partly becuase it is a symbol of waste and dishonesty under the Liberal government.
But the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police want the registry kept intact. Police use it about 5,000 times a day, they say, and it helps keep officers safer. Canadians, conerned about gun crime, are divided.
Harper could have held a vote on the registry's future and left the question to Parliament. That's the essence of this democracy thing.
Instead, fearing defeat, the Conservatives launched a stealth attack without Parliamentary support. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day announced a one-year amnesty for shotgun and rifle owners who have ignored the registration requirment, effectively rewarding them for breaking the law. The Conservatives chopped funding to the registry and eliminated fees for permit renewals. They are killing it, while avoiding a vote in Parliament.
Clever tactics, I suppose.
But many Canadians feared Harper's certainty would translate into a contempt for the views of others.
His actions in ignoring the legitimate role of Parliament and concentrating all power in the prime minister's office affirm those fears.
In winning some quick battles, he risks losing the longer political war.
Footnote: Two Liberal leadership candidates - Michael Ignatieff and Scott Brison - voted with the Harper government to extend the Afghanistan commitment. The other six, including Ken Dryden and Stephane Dion, were opposed. It should be a big issue in the leadership race.

1 comment:

Dave Macmurchie said...

This continues the theme that Harper established immediately after the election, when he induced David Emerson to join his government. At the time and for several weeks afterward various pundits expressed amazement that Harper should have such a political "tin ear" (Rex Murphy's words) as to make such a move.

Of the various explanations offered, none that I saw included the possibility that Harper was simply being vindictive: he was just incapable of resisting the opportunity to poke the Liberals in the eye.

The examples here tend to confirm a "Nyaaah, take that!" style of government that if continued may end up making Cretien seem gracious.