Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Firing O'Connor doesn't appear in the script...too bad

Firing O'Connor doesn't appear in the script
JOHN IBBITSON March 13, 2007 – Page A11 Globe and Mail

Gordon O'Connor is not going to be fired. It doesn't fit the narrative.

When the House of Commons resumes next week, Canada's Minister of Defence will have to offer an abject apology for misleading it.

Mr. O'Connor repeatedly told the House of Commons that prisoners captured by Canadian Forces and handed over to the Afghan government were not being mistreated, because the International Committee of the Red Cross would tell him if they were.

No, we wouldn't, the ICRC declared last week; that's not our job. So Mr. O'Connor misled the House, which is potentially a firing offence.

But unless the Defence Minister gets himself into even more trouble than he is already in -- and he does seem to be doing everything he can during his Afghanistan trip to make a bad situation worse -- he will almost certainly survive, for several reasons.

First, Mr. O'Connor didn't mislead the House as much as it appears he did. The Red Cross does, in fact, informally contact the Canadian government with information about prisoners transferred into Afghan custody. It's a back-channel thing, and Mr. O'Connor knew about it, which partly contributed to his misstatements.

Second, he's not doing all that bad a job. As a former general, Mr. O'Connor is handling the complex challenges of equipping the troops in Afghanistan while beefing up the Canadian military with considerable skill. Imagine the political cost if a more inept minister mishandled either of those formidable tasks. A genuine defence crisis -- one involving troops being killed because they didn't have the equipment they needed, or billions of dollars being wasted thanks to a flawed procurement process -- could bring down the government.

Third, firing Mr. O'Connor would hand an important narrative over to the opposition. The Conservatives have invested serious political capital in creating a Canada-in-the-world story. It's the story of Canada's commitment to the people of Afghanistan, of the restoration of a disgracefully underfinanced and underequipped military, of the renaissance of Canada's international voice.

Dismissing the Defence Minister would undermine that narrative, giving credence to the opposition claims of skewed priorities (we should get out of Afghanistan), botched purchases (we bought the wrong planes) and personality clashes (allegedly between Mr. O'Connor and Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier).

The Afghanistan mission, rather than being about delivering safety and security to a beleaguered people, while confronting the forces of terrorism and religious fundamentalism, would become a tale of Somalia-like accusations of mistreatment of prisoners.

Mr. Harper has no intention of letting the other side of the House tell the story that way. So Mr. O'Connor stays.

At least for now.

Gordon O'Connor's problem is that he doesn't realize how bad a politician he is. Now, lots of people enter political life lacking experience, and must learn, painfully, on the job. But he doesn't learn, doesn't want to learn, and has a tendency to fire people who tell him he needs to learn.

He prepares badly for Question Period, and gets flustered and irritable during it. His answers to questions from reporters can be long-winded and complex, which only invites further contradictions. And he improvises, as he did yesterday, telling reporters he planned to meet with the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission while in Kandahar, not realizing that the individual was out of town.

He's a communication director's worst nightmare.

In the next cabinet shuffle, Mr. Harper may decide that Mr. O'Connor, having done most of the heavy lifting, should step aside, to be replaced by someone who could do a better job selling the Conservatives' accomplishments on the file. If Mr. O'Connor screws up again, the Prime Minister might not wait until a shuffle.

But for now, Mr. O'Connor will continue to share with International Trade Minister David Emerson the reputation for being administratively competent, but politically inept.

Shorter answers, Mr. O'Connor. And it wouldn't hurt to smile.