Friday, February 16, 2007

Arrogant Conservatives ignore Commons

Arrogant Conservatives ignore Commons

Harper evoking echoes of Mike Harris by trying to persuade voters who equate toughness with stewardship to re-elect his government
Feb 15, 2007 04:30 AM
James Travers / TheTorontoStar

Something strange and troubling is happening in the national capital. A minority government behaving like a majority is creating an alternate universe where weak is strong and the will of Parliament is merely a suggestion.

Confirmation of Ottawa's new order is found in the current and bizarre confrontation over the Kyoto Protocol. Having already decided that this country's international treaty commitments aren't binding on his government, Stephen Harper is now signalling the same who-cares attitude to domestic law.

Conservatives are simply dismissing a bill that gives the administration 60 days to announce plans to reach Canada's 2012 Kyoto goals. After tossing obstacle after obstacle in the bill's 10-month path through Parliament, the Prime Minister's operatives now compare it to reversing the laws of gravity while darkly warning that the targets are now so far out of range that firing at them would mark the economy as ground zero.

Like most Big Lies, there's a little truth in those.

First Liberal and now Conservative foot-dragging has left Canada far behind nations in the environmental vanguard. It's also obvious that considerable sacrifice is now required to make up for lost time.

Those are important considerations. But they are no longer the most pressing concerns.

What's more worrying than the government's environmental sincerity is its default character. It's so cocksure, so blinded by the beauty of its convictions, that it bowls over anything in its way.

Woven through its declared willingness to ride roughshod over Parliament is the same single-minded determination that is driving its attempts to add partisanship and ideology to the appointment of judges. Both are risky steps in the wrong direction.

Administrations don't necessarily abide by the spirit, let alone the letter, of every bit of legislation, particularly when not considered as a test of confidence in the government. But diminishing elected MPs to advisers only slows overdue democratic reform even as it accelerates the already high-speed concentration of power at the political centre.

Reversing the trend away from a politicized appointment process by loading the screening committee is as damaging as what it's doing to Parliament. Along with raising the U.S. spectre of mixing personal beliefs with legal competence, it erodes public confidence in an independent judiciary.

These are watershed decisions that would be bold for a ruling party with an iron grip on power. They are extraordinary for one whose weak hold could be challenged as early as this spring.

Trace much of that confidence to the Prime Minister's strategic shrewdness and the tactical advantage that will fall to Conservatives if the next election is fought on leadership. Harper realized early in this mandate that an opposition in disarray allows him to rule much as he pleases and provides an opportunity to create a decisive political persona.

As Mike Harris proved in Ontario, enough voters equate toughness with stewardship to re-elect governments that make even unpopular choices. Harper is using a similar template and, after a rocky summer and fall, is reaping a modest opinion poll reward.

But leadership isn't just about policy certainty and political advantage. And that's where this Prime Minister is falling short.

Harper's perspective on specific policies – even on ones as vital as climate change and judicial appointments – does not transcend the higher duty of all prime ministers. They must defend the integrity of cornerstone institutions with junkyard dog ferocity.

No abandonment of personal principles or party objectives is necessary. If Harper believes what Conservatives are saying on Kyoto and the economy, he can seize the moment to test those convictions in an election. If he is convinced that current judges are activists and that the bench needs to be rebalanced then he can lead a national debate or seek a citizen seal of approval on that, too.

To be less transparent is to undermine Parliament and the judiciary while giving Canadians legitimate reason to fear what Conservatives would do with a majority. Harper's backroom advisers must surely think differently, but none of that seems in anyone's interest.

What's even less clear is who is willing to stand in this Prime Minister's way. Are the opposition parties willing to force an election over principles voters may not consider a ballot question?

And how many voices will join Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in reminding Canadians that judges and their courts must be strong and free enough to ensure governments honour the Constitution.

In the absence of that courage this capital will slide further into the alternate universe Conservatives are busily creating.