Sunday, April 23, 2006

all talk and no action; as the bubble is soon to burst ...

Harper fails to bring new style to Ottawa
Apr. 23, 2006, Toronto Star

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasted a glorious opportunity Friday to explain to an influential Toronto audience where he wants to take Canada and how he intends to get there.

Instead, he used his speech to 900 people at the Empire Club of Canada to fight the last election campaign all over again, swiping at the Liberals, claiming in particular that they would never have enacted any of his new federal accountability act and that they will try to defeat it.

He didn't talk about what he would do to help Toronto or Ontario. And he didn't even crack a joke about the Leafs failing to make the playoffs this season.

Fighting the last campaign may make sense to Harper, but he had better be careful because some of his own campaign words and promises are already coming back to haunt him.

And it is not Liberals who are reminding him of that, it is some of his true-believer supporters.

What worries them, and what should concern all voters, is Harper's early tendency to ignore or flip-flop on some of his key campaign promises and statements that he made while he was Opposition leader.

First, he appointed Michael Fortier, his campaign co-chairman, to the Senate and named him as public works minister. Harper made the appointment despite campaigning in favour of an elected Senate.

Second, he introduced his ethics and accountability package, one of the five priorities he says he intends to act on during this session of Parliament. But he shuffled the access to information part of the package, which could have had the potential to allow Canadians easier access to government documents, off to a Commons committee for study.

In Ottawa, that is often seen as the proverbial kiss of death for controversial legislation that is debated ad nauseam, but never passed by Parliament.

During the campaign, Harper repeatedly promised much more government openness and transparency if elected.

Third, he named Gordon O'Connor, a former defence industry lobbyist, as minister of defence. During the election, Harper vowed to curb the influence of Ottawa lobbyists.

Fourth, he appointed Conservative MPs as chairs of Commons committees. Among them was Saskatoon MP Maurice Vellacott, who will chair the aboriginal affairs committee. In 2004, Vellacott was heavily criticized for defending two Saskatoon policemen convicted of dumping a drunk aboriginal man on the outskirts of the city in minus-25 degree weather.

While in Opposition, Harper was so critical of the Liberals for appointing committee chairs that they allowed committees to elect their own chairs.

Fifth, in May 2004 while Opposition leader, Harper promised to eliminate the GST on any part of gas prices above 85 cents a litre. Last week, he dismissed the pledge because it "was made two elections ago."

Sixth, Harper railed against Liberal leader Paul Martin during the campaign for failing to give his cabinet ministers and MPs a chance to influence policy and for allowing only his closest personal advisers real access to power.

Now, Harper is under attack for centralizing more power in the Prime Minister's Office than ever before and for gagging cabinet ministers, who must clear almost every pronouncement in advance with his advisers.

To many voters, all these issues may seem trivial and of interest only within the tight confines of Parliament Hill.

But taken together, they are important because they provide a critical early glimpse into Harper's personal character and his governing style.

Harper won the election partly because he promised voters he would bring real change in how Ottawa operates. To date, that doesn't seem to be happening.