Saturday, March 24, 2007

from Dion whining to Harper the bully ...

Dear Stephane: Be a man
to the:
Guy next door one day, partisan bully another

Guy next door one day, partisan bully another
This prime minister offers voters a two-for-one deal
Mar 24, 2007 James Travers TheTorontoStar

Stephen Harper is a two-for-one prime minister. First, there is the one who grew so quickly into the job, and, then, there is the partisan bully who hits below the belt.

Both were on display this week. Harper's shrewd stratagems were everywhere in Monday's budget, and today his party is still controlling the damage from his nasty crack about Taliban prisoners, Canadian troops and Liberal patriotism.

Fiscal plan and malicious jab have now been debated. But what's still escaping close examination is this government's willingness to showcase what many, including some Conservatives, consider his second – and unpleasant – personality.

That's the Harper who dumbs-down the public policy debate until it fits on a bumper sticker. That's the one who, in preparation for a possible spring election, is dissing his principal foes as anti-police, soft on terrorism and more concerned with coddling enemy combatants than the safety of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

Call them slurs, smears or just federal politics as usual, they share a partisan beauty that's barely skin-deep.

Hidden below the surface are the delicate balances between national security and personal privacy, fighting crime and safeguarding judicial independence, as well as supporting the troops and scrutinizing the mission.

Canadians of goodwill and thoughtful disposition can and should disagree on the most appropriate tipping point.

After all, democracies everywhere are struggling with the defining issues of a new century already off to a stumbling start.

Still, what's intriguing as well as dispiriting is Harper's reluctance to encourage that debate. Instead, he and his handlers are making an obvious and determined effort to present the Prime Minister as something he's not – the guy next door who knows in his gut what's right and wrong.

That's not the Harper a select few is permitted to see. And it's not the one ministers, mandarins and diplomats know and even those with opposed views grudgingly admire.

That Harper is more policy wonk than obliging neighbour, someone who's consumed by ideas shaped by ideology.

That's also the Prime Minister who lives to work and knows government files well enough to easily hold his own with top bureaucrats and world leaders.

Which one shows up is often a matter of circumstance.

A week ago tonight, Harper was in Toronto delivering a speech to Conservative candidates and loyalists that came closest yet to explaining the enigma and the contradiction.

Road-testing campaign rhetoric, Harper talked expansively about the mountains, rivers and people that infused Jean Chr├ętien's my-Canada stump speech before adding this: "I didn't get back into politics to theorize. I returned to politics to make a difference, to get things done."

Judging how well he's succeeding is more a matter of observation than discussion since the Prime Minister now only talks regularly to reporters who kowtow to media controls that will inevitably force press freedom to its knees.

But it's reasonable to conclude that he's wrapping ivory-tower thinking in a mix of coffee-shop populism and partisan pragmatism.

Stripped to its essentials, Harper's vision is unusually clear.

He is largely content with the relationship between federal and provincial governments as it was written in 1867 with quill pens, prefers Ayn Rand's muscular individualism to Tommy Douglas' caring collectivism, and is more comfortable taking sides internationally than bridging differences.

Harper can be candid about his purpose even if his frankness sounds a bit like paranoia when he divides the country into an us-and-them conflict, pitting interests (and intellectuals) against just plain folks. One example pops from last week's Toronto text: "We cannot worry about what they say about us around boardroom tables but we must care what they talk about at the kitchen tables."

Where the two Harpers collide is over the quality of that conversation. By nature, the Harper who expanded exponentially to become the prime minister prefers talk to rise above people to the stratosphere of ideas. By instinct, the Harper who would do anything to win knows to keep it simple, lowdown and personal.

So, what Canadians have is a prime minister as engaged in theory as his immediate predecessor, Paul Martin, as well as a political practitioner as consumed with winning as Martin's forerunner, Chr├ętien. What the majority doesn't have yet is a sense of Harper it is ready to trust.

The reason seems self-evident: Each time the Prime Minister slips between personalities, voters are left wondering which one they are being asked to elect.

In retail politics, that doubt strips value out of even a two-for-one bargain.

Dear Stephane: Be a man
National Post March 24, 2007

On Thursday, Stephen Harper endured a second straight day of Liberal attacks over allegations that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan may have mistreated three Taliban prisoners. The Grits' hysteria prompted the Prime Minister to shoot back that the opposition seems to care more about the rights of Taliban detainees than the safety of our troops in Kandahar. His zinger in turn provoked Liberal Leader Stephane Dion to charge that Mr. Harper was trying to bully him. It seemed a particularly feeble -- dare we say, whimpy -- accusation for a grown man to make.

The exchange also demonstrated that while the Liberals love to dish out partisan invective, they can't take it when it's aimed at them.

Since last fall, the Liberals have labelled Mr. Harper a Neanderthal over his government's cuts to the Status of Women Canada budget; implied he is racist for axing the $5-billion Kelowna agreement on native funding; claimed he is anti-democratic for "stacking" the committees that advise on judicial nominees; accused him of "undermining our Canadian values system" by eliminating funding to the left-leaning Court Challenges Program; and suggested he was homophobic for reviving the debate on same-sex marriage. They have called him a "control freak," "Bush-lite," "deceitful" and a practitioner of "Republican voodoo economics."

Two weeks ago in Halifax, during his cross-country tour aimed at saving his sagging leadership, Mr. Dion accused the Prime Minister of hard-heartedly abandoning the poor by cutting social programs and of attempting "to change our culture to a rightwing republican state."

Whatever one thinks of the truth of these puffed up accusations -- and we don't think much of them -- they are perfectly above-board. Indeed, they are the lifeblood of a parliamentary system based on a government held to account by a zealous opposition. So why can't Mr. Dion and the Liberals stand it when they are the subject of return vitriol?

The answer, we suspect, is twofold. First, Mr. Dion's roots are in the academy, and so his temperament remains geared toward the more rational discourse that prevails in classrooms and academic journals. Second, Mr. Dion originally served in Cabinet with the Liberals during a period when the conservative opposition was weak -- and the Liberals were constantly on the offensive. Now that the tables have turned, Mr. Dion is disoriented.

"This is certainly a pattern," Mr. Dion told Parliament, referring to the Prime Minister, "where he acts as a bully and I don't want to follow this way, I don't want to do that."

Then don't follow it, Mr. Dion. Or do. Either way, stop whining like a child whose older brother just got a bigger lollypop. Act like a leader, or at least a grownup politician. Accept that in the cut-and-thrust of political jousting your opponents are going to make allegations against you and your party every bit as outsized as the ones you make against them.