Friday, August 11, 2006

Harper's certainty worrying Canadians

VICTORIA - Maybe decisiveness isn’t such a great thing in a prime minister.
Critics complained Jean Chretien put off decisions until they didn’t matter anymore and Paul Martin was dubbed ‘Mr. Dithers’ for his indecision.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a new style, quick, decisive, with no wavering.
It worked for a while, when  the issues were simple. But the action-man pose is starting look like a liability as more complex issues emerge, like Canada’s role in Afghanistan,  the current fighting in the Mideast or even the softwood lumber dispute.
Decisiveness and certainty are generally seen as good things in leaders. But in Harper’s case, they seem to be making many Canadians nervous. It’s not even that they disagree with his positions. But they’re worried that Harper’s certainty reflects a mind closed to reasonable self-doubt.
Harper’s attempts to rally support for the Afghanistan mission highlighted the problem. Canadians don’t “cut and run,” he told troops in Kandahar in March, choosing to echo George Bush. "It's not my way, and it's not the Canadian way. We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble,” Harper said. “We don't and we will not, as long as I'm leading this country.”
But Canadians do cut and run. The term comes from naval history, when ships facing a surprise attack would cut their anchor lines to escape quickly. It’s a common-sense response to imminent danger when fighting makes no sense.
Even Canadians who support the mission in Afghanistan - and there are many - want a thoughtful, worried approach from the prime minister, not slogans.
Our lives aren’t simple. Every day, we fret about choices at work, or our children. Living is complicated and we only rarely sure if we’ve done the right thing. (Or I am, anyway.)
Our elected leaders face choices that should be even more daunting, ones that affect the lives and well-being of millions. We want our leaders to have difficulty with them, to struggle with uncertainty.
But Harper isn’t showing uncertainty or doubt, even on the most difficult decisions. Canada has joined the U.S. in arguing that Israel should be given time to eliminate Hezbollah before any ceasefire is imposed in Lebanon.
That’s defensible. Hezbollah is a political movement and military force, with strong support in Lebanon and backing from Iran and other Arab countries. It is committed to the destruction of Israel and wages a small, deadly war. A delayed ceasefire was supposed to give Israel time to invade Lebanon and wipe out Hezbollah. That would save Israel from future attacks.
But there’s a cost. Israel has bombed roads and buildings in Lebanon; people with no connection with Hezbollah have been killed; civilians have been warned that staying in their homes may mean death.
There are endless arguments about the dispute. But for now, for Canada, the problem is deciding how to balance the costs of each day’s fighting against the hope for future peace. How many families should we allow to die in the interests of long-term stability? The toll so far is about 1,000 Lebanese, and 100 Israelis.
Harper hasn’t really blazed any new policy directions. Past governments may have been more equivocal, but ultimately would not have taken a much different position on the conflict. (Not that Canada’s view much matters.)
What’s mostly different is Harper’s tone, his certainty in supporting the war and accepting the civilian deaths as necessary for a greater good.
Many Canadians would ultimately accept that analysis. But they would struggle with it. They would expect their prime minister, faced with the real life-and-death decisions, to struggle as well. It should not be clear cut or easy to decide on a course that means death and destruction for civilians.
Certainty and decisiveness are over-rated. Canadians know the world is a mass of greys, not black and white. We know our leaders have to make hard decisions.
But we want them to struggle with those decisions, just as we would.
Footnote: Harper's approach is not playing well. A Strategic Counsel poll found 45 per cent of Canadians disagreed with Harper’s support for allowing the conflict to continue until Israel achieves its military objectives. About one-third supported his position. Three-quarters of those surveyed said Canada should be neutral in the dispute.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Making the Senate work

VICTORIA - It's worth giving the Senate one more chance.
There are lots of people - Premier Gordon Campbell among them - who don't want to spend more time talking about Senate reform. It's time to just get rid of it and move on, they say. You can see their point. Start with a basic issue - representation. B.C. gets six senators, the same as Newfoundland, which has 12 per cent of our province's population.  New Brunswick, with 750,000 people to B.C.'s 4.2 million, has four more seats.  Each B.C. senator represents 700,000 people. Each New Brunswick senator, 75,000.
It's hard to claim legitimacy for any legislative body that is so wildly unrepresentative. Add to that the Senate's inability to demonstrate real usefulness and public anger at patronage appointments and the future looks bleak for the so-called upper house.
A pair of senators is making a bid to address the representation problem. Jack Austin, a Liberal from B.C, and Lowell Murray, a Nova Scotia Conservative, hope to win changes that would recognize that B.C. and the West are short-changed in the Senate. Their plan would add 12 new members to the Senate, taking it to 117. B.C. would get six more senators and Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba would also gain. B.C. would still be under-represented, but the reform would be a big, positive change. Austin and Murray have already introduced their proposal in the Senate. They say other provinces should go along because they won't lose any seats and the changes are fair. Not likely. This kind of change requires a constitutional amendment.  That means the change requires the support of Parliament, the Senate and at least seven province with 50 per cent of the Canadian population. And that, despite the optimism of the two senators, isn't going to happen. Other provinces would not lose seats under the proposal, but they would lose influence. Quebec has 23 per cent of Senate seats today; it would have 21 per cent in the proposed expanded version. No Quebec government could take the political heat involved in even that tiny loss of power.
And the four Atlantic provinces would also likely say no to change.  The Senate's composition was negotiated as part of the terms of Confederation, they maintain. The small provinces were promised the seats to ensure their interests weren't forgotten. (The argument has worked; the West last got more seats in 1915.)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to agree that major Senate reform is too tough an issue. Harper's first stab at changing the way the Senate works is useful, but tiny. Under his plan, senators would be appointed for eight-year terms. They now keep the job until they turn 75.
That's more tinkering than reform, surprising given Harper's past life in the old Reform/Alliance party which wanted a "Triple E" senate - elected, equal and effective.
Harper's desire to avoid another constitutional debate is understandable. But he could still be doing more. Harper could start the process of shifting to an elected Senate without any legislative or constitutional changes. All he has to do is announce that he'll be guided in naming future senators by the results of any legitimate provincial vote.
Alberta has already had three Senate 'elections,' adding the question to provincial election ballots. The first successful candidate even made it into the upper chamber when Brian Mulroney honoured the voters' choice in 1990. (Jean Chretien and Paul Martin ignored the results of Alberta's Senate elections.)
Why not just let the Senate go?
Despite its failings, the Senate could be useful. There is merit to the idea of a legislative body where members are able to take the long view of issues, unworried about their prospects of re-election in a few years (or months).
That's especially true if senators are selected from outside the usual ranks of political partisans for their intellect or experience of compassion or expertise.
But time is running out.
Footnote: Campbell's abolitionist position is shared by Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, Manitoba's Gary Doer and Saskatchewan's Lorne Calvert. An Ipsos-Reid poll this summer found about one-third of those surveyed said the Senate should be abolished and 44 per cent said senators should be elected. British Columbians were among its strongest supporters.