Every act tips its author’s hand, and with Helena Guergis’s departure from cabinet we are beginning to understand what it takes for Stephen Harper to remove a minister.
In these matters it will never do to set the bar too high. Harper did not invent the dud minister, and a rule of thumb established by a long line of his predecessors holds that undue haste in firing a minister for garden-variety offences—simple incompetence, inertia or unflagging incuriosity (breathe easy, Lawrence Cannon)—sets unhelpful precedents.
But twice Harper has reached the end of his rope with a minister. First Maxime Bernier left cabinet, now Helena Guergis has. In each case the last straw was similar. Weeks of public controversy didn’t do it. Harper greeted the revelation that Bernier’s girlfriend Julie Couillard was a biker moll with public protestations that mere gossip couldn’t be germane to Bernier’s worth.
He mustered comparable nonchalance at the stories about Guergis’s airport tantrum, the coverage of her husband Rahim Jaffer’s arrest for drunk driving and drug possession, and the news that her staff spent a surprising amount of time writing letters to the editor marvelling at qualities in the junior minister that eluded a broader audience. Even when the Toronto Star reported that Jaffer, settling with some difficulty back into life in the private sector, had bragged about his political connections to shady business associates in a Toronto strip joint, Harper stood by his minister.
To a great degree, Harper’s insouciance in the early stages of the Guergis controversy should come as no surprise. The Prime Minister has his own history of tense relations with air transport. In 2005 Harper flew back from war memorial ceremonies in the Netherlands with then-prime minister Paul Martin and his fellow opposition leaders in a vile mood. He rejected his assigned seating near the front of the airplane and scolded Martin’s photographer, Dave Chan, for trying to take his picture. “You do not have permission to be taking my picture,” he said.
After the 2006 election, a Globe and Mail columnist reported that Harper was not thrilled when a Canadian Forces pilot asked him to turn off his BlackBerry for landing. The pilot, the paper reported, was reassigned. The PMO protested after the column appeared that Harper does not own a BlackBerry, a narrow defence indeed.
But onward. With both Guergis and Bernier, a moment came when Harper was finally ready to cut the offending minister loose. Both times it happened quickly. Both times the weight of the last straw was at best debatable. Bernier left a classified briefing book behind at Couillard’s house. Now, a lot of stuff gets stamped “classified” in the nation’s capital that would surprise no one and harm no interest. But no matter: out the door went Max Bernier’s toned and coltish ass.
Guergis, in turn, was ratted out with a stack of allegations—tropical bank accounts, slush funds, suggestions that there might be photos of the Guergis-Jaffer couple in close proximity to hookers and blow—delivered by Derrick Snowdy, a private gumshoe who would later turn out to be $13 million in the hole and curiously willing to pause from his investigations to shop his choicest nuggets around to one political party or another (he had tried the Liberals before knocking at the Conservatives’ door).
But before any of that extenuating information came to light—Snowdy’s debt, his chattiness, the fact that the whole lurid mudbath was based on the claims of Jaffer’s associate Nazim Gillani, a cheerful braggart who would waste no time distancing himself from his own allegations—Harper had announced Guergis’s departure from cabinet, her suspension from caucus, and his speedy notification of the RCMP and the ethics commissioner.
Now here’s what connects both cases. With Guergis as with Bernier, Harper withstood weeks of public controversy. Then he cut his ministers loose as soon as he had private information his adversaries and the Canadian people didn’t yet possess. Well, “information.” A flimsy tissue of gossip might, in Guergis’s case, be the more accurate label. But what mattered was that after weeks on the defensive, Harper could be one step ahead of everyone else.
Being one step ahead is a special feeling. No politician in our time values it more highly than Harper. His eagerness to price his own insider status higher than its realistic value in the political market is turning out to be a consistent weakness.
He had great fun appointing Michael Fortier, a dapper Montreal lawyer, to the Senate and his cabinet in 2006. Ha! Nobody saw that one coming. But Fortier had no perceptible impact on the Conservatives’ fortunes in Quebec, his relations with the Harper PMO became a constant thorn in everyone’s side, and the way he combined extravagant scorn for the Senate with a cushy post in the same chamber detonated Harper’s credibility as a parliamentary reformer. The benefit wasn’t even close to being worth the cost.
Later, Harper lost a minister due to resignation, not scandal, when he implemented a 180-degree turn on the notion of recognizing Quebec as a nation without bothering to inform his own intergovernmental affairs minister, Michael Chong. And of course the classic case of Harper believing he would astonish and amaze everyone with a sudden move was his decision, five weeks after the 2008 election, to eliminate public funding for political parties.
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