By Paul Wells - Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 0 Comments
Farewell then, Claude Patry, MP for Jonquière-Alma, freshly departed to the Bloc Québécois. (You’re gonna need a bigger phone booth for your caucus meetings, guys.) We hardly knew ye. No, no, strike that: We had no idea ye existed. Anyway, best of luck.
Two days after the 2011 election, I wrote this blog post, which now seems oddly prescient (although the full-on catastrophe it describes still resides in the future, or will never happen):
“…In its earliest days the Bloc was made up of people who’d abandoned other parties’ caucuses: Lucien Bouchard and five other Progressive Conservatives, and Jean Lapierre and another Liberal.
”Only two days after Monday’s election, it’s already becoming obvious that the likeliest route to a revival of the Bloc Québécois is some kind of replay of those heady days in 1990. NDP Caucus Services will have its share of challenges over the next little while, but one item on its to-do list should be the preparation of a contingency plan for the bright morning when a dozen or 20 of its Quebec MPs decide Canadian federalism has failed some arbitrary test of its flexibility and it’s time to join the Bloc.”
One MP isn’t a dozen or 20. But the lasting danger for the NDP is the tension between the 57% of its caucus who come from Quebec and the 2/3 of its popular vote that came from outside. It’s possible to mitigate that tension. It’s impossible to eliminate it.
By Paul Wells - Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 11:09 AM - 0 Comments
Quebec higher-education minister Pierre Duchesne will spend Monday and Tuesday presiding over a summit on Quebec universities. Duchesne, a former senior correspondent for Radio-Canada, is one of the nicest guys I met in journalism; his three-volume (!) biography of Jacques Parizeau is definitive. It’s worth putting that on the record because next week’s summit looks like a five-alarm gong show, it couldn’t happen to a nicer government, and I sometimes have trouble holding back the snark.
The Gazette‘s Karen Seidman has a good overview of the issues and the way the Marois government has managed to position this summit as one whose outcome will please nobody. But I’m struck by a recurring theme in French-language commentary, which is the feats of ingenuity being expended to justify giving McGill University less public money. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 12:13 PM - 0 Comments
We sure picked a good day to be discussing the future of Keystone XL with CPAC and a blue-chip guest list in Washington. (Showtime is 7 p.m. and you can watch it all on CPAC. We’ve got Gary Doer and John Manley and many more, and Colleague Luiza Ch. Savage will keep them all honest. I’m writing from the U.S. departure lounge at Ottawa airport, and right now it looks like I’ll probably get to the Newseum before cameras roll.)
Fifteen months after Barack Obama delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, it is getting time to stop delaying. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 11:29 PM - 0 Comments
In its rhetoric, Barack Obama’s Tuesday State of the Union address sealed the four-year transformation of the United States into a society well to the left of Stephen Harper’s Canada.
Never mind the president’s closing peroration in favour of substantial new firearm regulation — misleading to cross-border comparisons at any rate, as the U.S. starts from such anarchy on firearms that they would have a long way to regulate before they caught up to the Canadian firearms regime, even after Parliament abolished the long-gun registry last year. Nor am I really thinking about his call for tax increases as a component of deficit reduction — simple arithmetic when the books are as out of whack as they are in Washington. There was also Obama’s passionate plea for serious policy to regulate carbon emissions in a bid to control global warming. His federally mandated increase to the minimum wage with an added cost-of-living index. And the bit that I found most striking because it was least expected and, if it were carried out, perhaps most ambitious: universal preschool for all four-year-olds, an extension of public schooling that would be hard to imagine in Canada, where Harper cancelled the federal-provincial daycare agreements he inherited from the Paul Martin Liberals. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 11:40 PM - 0 Comments
Stephen Harper’s decision to send a long list of questions on Senate reform to the Supreme Court of Canada — all the stories say six questions, but two are multiple-choice, so I count 14 — reflects an advanced state of uncertainty about how to handle Parliament’s upper house.
Since Harper campaigned for his job seven years ago on a promise to elect senators, and since he has had his majority for nearly two years but is only now asking the top court questions that must surely have preoccupied Justice Department lawyers since at least 2006, his decision indicates he is still improvising on a non-trivial constitutional file.
Actually, I have always kind of liked this dishevelled approach to the Senate-reform task. After the 1992 Charlottetown referendum, Jean Chrétien had a ready-made answer on the Senate: I was all in favour of a Senate reform that would have given the West more clout, but the people rejected it, he’d say. Chrétien and Stéphane Dion and, after the customary vague period, Paul Martin all said a piecemeal reform would freeze a dysfunctional upper house in place. Only wholesale reform would fix anything. And since that was impossible, why bother? Continue…
By Paul Wells - Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 11:02 AM - 0 Comments
Mostly the bill is a shrine to Paragraph 88 of the Supreme Court’s opinion on the 1998 Secession Reference. As I wrote last night in numbing detail, any victory dance over an “obligation to negotiate” secession should entail some serious thought about what those negotiations would be like, and there’s none here. But then there’s a bonus:
9. For greater certainty, the question concerning the constitutional change may include proposals to implement recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada, such as proposals relating to
(a) the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework;
(b) the limitation of federal spending power in Quebec;
(c) permanent tax transfers and associated standards; and
(d) the Government of Quebec’s opting out with full compensation from any programs if the Government of Canada intervenes in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 12:29 AM - 0 Comments
Emmett Macfarlane has already written here on the NDP’s Unity Bill, which makes secession easier than the Liberals’ Clarity Act, which as some of the critics Aaron Wherry canvasses have pointed out, isn’t super-clear. I’m not going to try to win arguments here; I learned a long time ago it can’t be done, thanks partly to the superhuman ability of activists in the secession debate to speak and write with certainty about things they haven’t read. If, for instance, you haven’t read Jacques Parizeau’s books Pour un Québec souverain and La souveraineté du Québec, maybe you shouldn’t speculate on what he planned after the 1995 referendum. But on the other hand you probably needn’t let it stop you, because I keep running into people who’ve read the books and still don’t seem to have understood basic points Parizeau repeats frequently.
Anyway. The reason we have spent nearly 40 years debating the effect of referendum results a few points this side or that of 50 per cent is because we have all known for nearly that long that any separatist “victory” in a referendum will be a close thing. If there ever were such a vote, 50 per cent plus a bit on a confusing question, then a sovereignist Quebec government would run into difficulties that don’t have much to do with the text of the Clarity Act and would not be eased by Tom Mulcair’s attempted compromise. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 10:32 PM - 0 Comments
This evening I read listlessly from a library copy of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by historian Daniel Walker Howe. It’s part of the multi-volume Oxford History of the United States, and covers a relatively unloved part of that country’s history. It begins at the end of the War of 1812 and ends before the long prelude to the Civil War. But Howe depicts that period as the opposite of a dry spell between bursts of action. Technological breakthroughs in communications and transportation, especially the telegraph and the steam locomotive, changed the nature of social intercourse in a still largely empty country. Howe says the advent of fast transport and faster broadcasting of ideas was at least equal in its social impact to the arrival of the internet 150 years later. As one example among many, he argues that Southern slaveholders didn’t need to care what anyone else thought of their nasty business in 1815, but that that had started to change for good 33 years later.
I’m writing a book about Stephen Harper and it occurs to me that when he was elected in 2006, there was (for most Canadians not enrolled in higher education) no Facebook, no Twitter, and Youtube was barely six months old. I’ll tell you right now I don’t see the social-media revolution as having had a deciding impact on Canadian electoral politics or government. But I’ve got a hunch it’s had some impact.
I invite your observations and theories in the comment section below. I don’t have a leading question because I have no idea what I’m looking for, but: have technological changes had any influence on Canadian politics since 2006? Feel free to DM me on Twitter or email me if you have thoughts you want to share more quietly. As always, be nice to one another in the comments, please.
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 12:52 PM - 0 Comments
Prime Minister Stephen Harper surprised his nearly 300,000 Twitter followers on Monday by tweeting photos and video from a typical day at home and on Parliament Hill.
One of the most striking posts was a short video showing him entering his daily senior staff meeting. It was a rare look at the advisers who are on hand to brief the PM as he begins his work day.
Many of these people are barely known outside Harper’s office. Their hiring and departure is almost never announced in a news release. This isn’t the only power group in Harper’s Ottawa — cabinet ministers and their staffs have important responsibilities; top bureaucrats manage departments numbering in the thousands — but in a city where it sometimes seems that clout increases with proximity to Stephen Harper, this is literally the inner circle.
Click on each individual to find out who they are and what they do:
Related reading: The Maclean’s Power List
By Paul Wells - Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 11:30 PM - 0 Comments
On Dec. 13, the day after the Commons rose for the Christmas break, CTV’s Don Martin met Thomas Mulcair in Stornaway to talk about the parliamentary season then ending. The big news there was the F-35 procurement audit and the CNOOC/Nexen deal. When the House sits on Monday for the first time in six weeks, I’ll be surprised if either is a big issue. Politics in Canada has moved on, and it feels like we are a lot more than six weeks closer to the next election.
We know more about two opposition figures, Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, than we did in mid-December. Mulcair spent the holidays and the first month of 2013 accelerating his efforts to moderate the NDP’s public image. Trudeau made it through the opening rounds of the woefully belated Liberal leadership campaign without showing up at a debate without pants, saying the country is run by too many Albertans — well, at least he managed not to say it again — or doing anything else to blow his reputation among Liberals. And a string of polls (the kind that ask about hypothetical situations in the future, so don’t take them as gospel) suggest he’d take a far bigger bite out of NDP and Conservative support than any of his opponents. So his lead in the Liberal leadership race holds steady.
I think Mulcair’s six weeks have been more significant. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 3:24 PM - 0 Comments
There are so many Liberal leadership races going on across the country that sometimes we miss a few. I woke up in an arctic Montreal this morning eager to check one of the larger contests off my list. The candidates to succeed Jean Charest as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party — the convention will be in Montreal on March 16-17 — were having a kind of sort of debate.
The venue was the Sheraton Centre hotel, where a group called Idée Fédérale wanted to gauge the candidates’ federalist credentials. Idée Fédérale is designed to be a place where Quebecers can talk about Canada in public, as though it were respectable; its most visible figures are La Presse editor André Pratte and international-relations scholar Jocelyn Coulon, who inaugurated a durable tradition when he became the first in a string of federal Liberals to lose to Tom Mulcair in Outremont in 2007.
This morning’s breakfast was resolutely low-key. Pratte sat in a plush chair and interrogated the three candidates, gently gently, in turn. They did not appear together except for a group photo. Let’s take them in the order they appeared. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Monday, January 21, 2013 at 10:25 AM - 0 Comments
As you will have heard, rapper Lupe Fiasco got kicked off the stage last night at one of the endless rounds of tedious pre-inaugural events that have clustered around today’s second Obama inauguration like barnacles.
He was in the middle (or perhaps near the end, or maybe the beginning; we can only speculate) of an extended jam in which he was saying various disrespectful things about Barack Obama, when a bunch of really big guys came onto the stage and encouraged him to take it somewhere else.
When reading the statement from the organizers of the event, who protest that they “are staunch supporters of free speech, and free political speech,” it’s worth noting that Fiasco was the evening’s headliner and that his name was the largest design element in posters advertising the party. A lot of people attending it would not have known or cared that they were “honouring innovative visionaries;” they thought they were at a Lupe Fiasco concert. Which helps explain why it’s really hard to hear anyone “vocally dissatisfied” in the video of the “bizarrely repetitive, jarring performance.” Continue…
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 10:40 PM - 0 Comments
It’s not clear what Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath expects from the province’s next Liberal premier, whom the party will select on Jan. 26. She’s “open to working to get results for the people of this province,” in contrast to Conservative opposition leader Tim Hudak, who likes his chances in an election and will likely withhold confidence as early as possible to try to get one.
Does that mean Horwath wants a Liberal-NDP coalition? Continue…
By Paul Wells - Monday, January 14, 2013 at 11:58 AM - 0 Comments
The former Liberal Justice minister is a late-breaking candidate for the federal Liberal leadership. He lost to Tom Mulcair in Outremont in 2011 and did not contest the three elections before that, but back in the olden days Jean Chrétien handed him an increasing series of responsibilities. He was justice minister when Canada began to legalize gay marriage and almost decriminalized pot. He may be seen as an exciting candidate.
As Montreal journalist Justin Ling points out, a recent speech Cauchon gave in Berlin seems custom-designed to stifle any excitement.
By Paul Wells - Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 1:06 PM - 0 Comments
News that the Governor General will meet with aboriginal leaders (or at least with those aboriginal leaders who are pleased to show up) after Friday’s meeting with the PM (if it happens) at Rideau Hall (unless the venue changes) offers us our umpteenth opportunity to consider the autonomy of governors general and lieutenant governors.
They have none.
OK, for the sticklers in the audience, I’m willing to amend that to: they have limitless autonomy which they essentially never exercise. Which is the same as having no autonomy.
The PMO sent out word today that David Johnston will have a “ceremonial” meeting with First Nations leaders, at Stephen Harper’s request. Then Rideau Hall sent out a communiqué saying the same thing. I would be surprised if the timing of the two communiqués was not co-ordinated, so the PM’s staff speaks before the GG’s. This is as it should be, and as it has been since Lord Elgin signed the Rebellion Losses Bill.
One of the enduring modern bits of Ottawa lunacy has been the persistent belief that governors general will do something besides what the prime minister asks them to do. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Monday, January 7, 2013 at 10:01 AM - 0 Comments
My last blog post of 2012 made some guesses about politics in 2013 and included a throwaway line about Tom Mulcair: “Note the lack of photos with hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence.” Today, following an orchestrated campaign of leaks of a new Deloitte audit showing that it has, for some time, been impossible to tell how federal money is spent in Attawapiskat — and the reappearance of some damning reporting a year ago by the CBC — let us note again Mulcair’s decision not to show up at Spence’s side.
Others played Chief Spence’s protest differently.
Joe Clark was quick to visit with Chief Spence, which led Keith Beardsley, who has worked for both Clark and Stephen Harper, to make the kind of amazing suggestion that
Harper should appoint Clark as his envoy to… to… to “this file.”[UPDATE: Beardsley tells me that's a misreading, and he was suggesting only that Harper ask Clark to brief him on Clark's visit with Spence. Sorry for the confusion - pw] Paul Martin, who presented himself as an improvement over Jean Chrétien in government accountability but who was prime minister during part of the Deloitte Attawapiskat audit period, visited Spence and returned to call her an inspiration, a term now open to multiple interpretations.
From Mulcair, nothing. Well, nothing visual. He did write an open letter that mentioned Spence, but reading it now what’s striking is that Mulcair did not call on Harper to meet Spence, only to “act swiftly to avoid a personal tragedy.”
This now looks like becoming prudence on the part of the Leader of the Opposition. My new suspicion is that last year’s slightly weird Conservative Party “Get to Know Mulcair’s Team” web ads were based partly on Conservative worries that Mulcair would not serve up as many gaffes as Harper might like, so he should be tied as closely as possible to his less cautious back bench. Mulcair, after all, comes from the province where this ad nearly sunk an opposition leader on the road to power:
By Paul Wells - Monday, December 31, 2012 at 12:24 PM - 0 Comments
I’m with Nascar blogger MadCowRacing: the middle of a long race is underrated. “It seems like today a lot of people don’t know how to enjoy the middle part of the races, the part where the drivers settle in for a while,” MadCowRacing writes in his blog post about 500-mile track races, which I adopt as a text for Canadian federal politics in 2013. ”A lot of people think these guys are ‘riding around,’ but that is never really the case except for the drivers who like to sit in the back until the end of a restrictor plate race.”
By Paul Wells - Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 9:31 PM - 0 Comments
I hope you’ll indulge a story from home.
Insomniac on Christmas Eve during a visit to Sarnia to spend the holidays with parents and siblings, I prowled my parents’ bookcases looking for something to distract me. I found two copies of a paperbound book called The Collection: Sarnia Public Library and Art Gallery from 1981. I knew the library part well: most Saturdays while I was growing up my dad would load the previous week’s library books into the back of his car, I’d bring my own smaller set of returns, and we’d head downtown for a refill. I’m pleased to see the library is still a going concern, with better opening hours than the two Ottawa Public Library branches closest to my house.
The art gallery upstairs was a less frequent destination, but the catalogue, published while I was in high school, confirmed my vague memory: it had a top-drawer collection, 336 pieces by 1981 including works by most of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr, David Milne, David Blackwood, Jean Paul Lemieux, Tom Thomson, Toni Onley and others. By 1994, the gallery started to outgrow its home and the Lambton County authorities moved it, in some desperation, down the street to a downtown mall which was already tanking commercially, leaving a valuable collection surrounded by dollar stores, boarded storefronts and leaky roofs. And that’s the last I heard about it all.
So I was surprised and relieved to learn that the collection has moved to a stunning new downtown venue, the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery, in a $10.1 million complex behind a heritage-building edifice on the main Christina St. retail drag. It looks like this:
By Paul Wells - Friday, December 21, 2012 at 1:38 PM - 0 Comments
It’s hard to know where to begin making sense of the NRA’s news conference this morning, in which the leading U.S. gun lobby called for a massive federal program, run by President Barack Obama and his socialist hordes, to finance a constant armed state presence in every neighbourhood in America. I’d have thought conservatives would be against that sort of thing. How will your Arm-a-Care officer get to your neighbourhood school? In a black helicopter?
There is a kind of logic in Wayne Lapierre’s argument. It’s not as though the nearly half-million armed men and women who would flood America’s 98,000 public schools — here I figure two shifts of two snipers each for each school — would be the first firearms a virginal American public ever saw. To quote Lapierre:
Think about it. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses — even sports stadiums — are all protected by armed security.
We care about the President, so we protect him with armed Secret Service agents. Members of Congress work in offices surrounded by armed Capitol Police officers.
Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family — our children — we as a society leave them utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and exploit it. That must change now!
Lapierre’s logic would be bulletproof, so to speak, if U.S. airports, office buildings, courthouses and Presidents had a spotless record free from armed assault. Or if the correlation between armed protection and safety in any of those venues, worldwide, were clear. But, yes, since America is already armed to the teeth, fully arming the teeth does make a kind of sense, if one is in a generous mood. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 6:10 PM - 0 Comments
Four of Jean Chrétien’s six Supreme Court appointees were francophones, including some from outside Quebec; the two anglophones, Fish and Binnie, were Montreal-born McGill graduates who had no trouble in French. At one point Chrétien’s Chief Justice (Antonio Lamer), Clerk of the Privy Council (Jocelyne Bourgon), Chief of Staff (Jean Pelletier), and some large number of his cabinet ministers were francophones. Chrétien’s favourite cabinet minister, Stéphane Dion, introduced an Action Plan for Official Languages in 2003; Paul Martin extended it in 2005.
I belabour all this because Stephen Harper responded to some criticism in a year-end interview with TVA by saying: “As prime minister, I think I’ve given more space to French than any prime minister in the history of the country.” (He began the sentence with a franchement, frankly, that gave me this post’s headline.) Continue…
By Paul Wells - Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 12:18 AM - 0 Comments
So this happened, unless it’s fake.
UPDATE: Gawker’s pretty sure it’s fake.
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 3:58 PM - 0 Comments
So last night several dozen members of the Media Party joined a smaller cohort from the Conservative Party for a Christmas party at 24 Sussex Drive. Laureen Harper made little chocolate mice for the dessert tray. The event was strictly off the record, a new formal stipulation in place since Jane Taber surprised us all by writing up chapter and verse of the prime minister’s cocktail-party chat for the Globe a year ago, so I will tell you not a word that Stephen Harper shared with us. I can, however, report that Andrew MacDougall said not a word.
And it wasn’t for lack of effort on my part. “Answer the Mark Carney question of your choice,” I said to him, attempting to be sly.
“No comment,” he said, smiling and staring resolutely into the middle distance.
“Was there anger?” I asked.
By Paul Wells - Monday, December 17, 2012 at 5:39 PM - 0 Comments
Belgium’s foreign minister Didier Reynders seems a jolly fellow. He should be, given that Gérard Depardieu has chosen to live in Belgium and engage in a shouting match with the French government over French income taxes, which are high. Today Reynders gave an interview to the centre-right newspaper Le Figaro, where critics of the socialist president François Hollande are made to feel comfortable.
Dépardieu’s arrival is a good-news story for Belgium, which could use one; Wikipedia’s entry on Belgium’s “2007-2011 political crisis” seems to me to have pretty arbitrary start and end dates. Reynders’ interview catches the longtime former finance minister in an ebullient and cutting mood. On French PM Jean-Marc Ayrault’s use of the word “pathetic” (minable) to describe Dépardieu: “These are words we would never use in Belgium, even when we are very angry.” On the French government’s desire to renegotiate tax collection between the two governments, the gentlest possible No Way: “We’re ready to examine many things, as long as the superior principle of free circulation of people, goods and services within the EU is respected. But if this is about recognizing some French power to tax people who live in Belgium, that’s a whole other matter. Every European country must accept that its citizens decide to live elsewhere.” Continue…
By Paul Wells - Monday, December 17, 2012 at 2:09 PM - 0 Comments
David Johnston used the word “tradition” at least three times as he introduced the subject of Rideau Hall’s latest portrait this morning. The current Governor General is a voracious reader, an early advocate of the internet, and a stickler for propriety; he will not have been unaware that advance coverage of John Ralston Saul’s portrait unveiling generated not inconsiderable online umbrage over the fact that Saul, while he may have his charms, was never the Governor General of Canada, and why are my tax dollars etc., etc., etc.
Johnston said nothing to address the monetary question, but here’s the answer: portraits of former viceregal consorts that hang at Rideau Hall, such as this one of Gerda Hnatyshyn, are paid for by the subject. As for the who-does-he-think-he-is bit, the incumbent guarantor of the viceregal office’s propriety was quick to remind the little crowd that his predecessor Adrienne Clarkson had worked with Saul in continuation of “a tradition of governors general and their spouses working together for a better country.” He then mentioned the paintings and photos of previous spouses that line the august joint’s corridors. (Gabrielle Léger, who read portions of two Throne Speeches after Jules Léger suffered a stroke in office, stands with him in his official portrait.) “Today’s portrait unveiling is a continuation of this tradition.”
Populist dudgeon thus banished, Johnston moved on to what we may perhaps call the Clarkson-Saul legacy. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 11:45 PM - 0 Comments
Let’s start with the email Dimitri Soudas, a former press secretary to the Prime Minister, sent from the Prime Minister’s Office on Aug. 25, 2010:
“On 24 August, two CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft were launched and visually identified 2 Russian aircraft, the TU-95 Bear, approximately 120 nautical miles north of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. At their closest point, the Russian aircraft were 30 nautical miles from Canadian soil. The CF-18s shadowed the Bear aircraft until they turned around. The two CF-18s came from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta.
”Thanks to the rapid response of the Canadian Forces, at no time did the Russian aircraft enter sovereign Canadian airspace.
”We are happy to report that CF aircraft returned to their base without incident….
”The CF-18 is an incredible aircraft that enables our Forces to meet Russian challenges in our North. That proud tradition will continue after the retirement of the CF-18 fleet as the new, highly capable and technologically-advanced F-35 comes into service. It is the best plane our Government could provide our Forces, and when you are a pilot staring down Russian long range bombers, that’s an important fact to remember.”
Never mind that the email contained an industrial quantity of bullshit; on a day like today, if we let that slow us down we will never get anywhere. Note, instead, the tone — “when you are a pilot staring down Russian long range bombers;” the assumption, too ludicrous to state outright but there all the same, that if our lonely flyboys don’t stare down the Russians they will be dropping their lethal payload on Edmonton any minute now; and most importantly, the casually assumed identification with the men and women in uniform, who actually do face danger whenever they taxi down a runway, hardly ever from an external enemy, but routinely from altitude, velocity, thin air and the immense hurtling canisters of inflammable liquid upon which they are perched.
This is serious business, the Harper government has said in one way or another a thousand times. They got at least that much right. It is so serious that one of the distinguishing characteristics of most professionals in uniform is an elevated degree of humility, because if you get too far up your own backside you will miss information that could cost lives. That level of humility helps explain why, immediately after Soudas sent his Top Gun email and the Sun papers began a fun week trying to figure out how to spell “Russki,” NORAD put out a news release stating for the record that the Russians had done nothing untoward. “Both Russia and NORAD routinely exercise their capability to operate in the North,” the people who actually wear uniforms and actually stare at bombers wrote. “These exercises are important to both NORAD and Russia and are not cause for alarm.”
There is a straight line from that day to today, when Peter MacKay should be hanging his head in shame and the Prime Minister of Canada with him, but instead they put on the kind of asinine spectacle that has my very even-tempered colleague Geddes plainly struggling to contain his temper. That line is drawn along the hard rule of a simplistic assumption that has been pervasive in this government: that because Conservatives like soldiers and pilots and airplanes, and the Liberals don’t, then the Conservatives will make correct decisions and any critic, anywhere, must therefore be a Liberal and therefore — what’s the word? — treasonous.
Stéphane Dion used to ask about the treatment of Afghan prisoners who were legally a Canadian responsibility. Stephen Harper used to say Dion cared more about the Taliban than about Canadian troops. The details of the file cost Gordon O’Connor his job as defence minister, and incidentally, on the ground in Afghanistan, real Canadian troops were scrambling to adjust, day after day after day, to meet and reconcile two requirements they, at least, took very seriously: the need to keep large numbers of potential bad guys out of circulation, and the need to respect those prisoners’ most elementary human rights. Which meant Stéphane Dion had a point.
Michael Ignatieff voted to defeat the government in the spring of 2011, and then Ignatieff led his party to historic defeat and he lost his own seat and ho-ho, isn’t it fun, but the really funny thing is that what made Ignatieff vote the way he did was grave concern over the cost of F-35 fighters and the government’s continued snit about even being asked to consider the question. The Canadian people voted the way they did, and there was probably real insight in their decision that the Liberals should be pushed further from power rather than invited closer to it. But if the Conservatives had “pressed the reset button” 20 months ago instead of today, then real pilots who have to stare down real threats would be 20 months closer to real equipment that might really help. Instead the pilots’ friends at Langevin have done the pilots a real disservice.
Every once in a while the government does listen to an opposition member, or a critic outside politics. It does reconcile its vision of the world with others’. That’s been an important part of Stephen Harper’s political longevity, too rarely recognized. But there was never any real chance that it would do so on a military procurement file until it was far, far too late, because Conservatives like soldiers and pilots and airplanes. This is how your strengths become weaknesses. There should be a designated full-time devil’s advocate in the PMO, somebody the prime minister trusts a lot and fears a little. The person should argue, every day, that the government might be wrong. We used to have a civil service to do that, but those days are gone. On odd days, the designated full-time devil’s advocate could preface his remarks by saying, “I’m not really the devil’s advocate, you know. I’m the Queen’s, and the Canadian people’s, and yours too, if you’re smart.”