Thursday, February 09, 2006

What is the Conservative Cabinet scandal telling us?

Scandal? Yes. If it's scandalous, and it is, it's a scandal. What should have been a one day news story is now into day four and there is no sign it's going to abate very quickly. But what is it telling us?

Let's first observe the public reaction: Outrage.

The public elected the Harper Conservatives filled with misgivings. There was a need to exorcise the Liberals after a much publicized and acrimonious public inquiry which gave even the most loyal Liberals a moment of pause. It didn't matter that Paul Martin had initiated the inquiry into his own party's activity, there was a stain that needed to be taken out. However, Harper was hardly a good choice. His past extreme views, his association with the far right and the Reform roots of his Conservative Party of Canada made voters nervous - so much so that most Canadians voted for somebody else.

Once elected, Canadians expected Harper to live up to the vision he had conjured up during the campaign. Ignore the past, he was now a "good guy". He would provide good and honest government, accountability and above all, it would be squeaky clean. Canadians warily provided the yardarm and a single halyard to let Stephen Harper hoist a set of colours. Canadians, who can usually be relied upon to ignore the government for the first few months after an election, viewed Harper differently. The casual trust was not there. As opposed to embracing Harper, now that he was elected, Canadians were watching to gauge his moves. Where other prime ministers might have had to wait six months for the public to start scrutinizing the performance of government, Harper was going to be watched with great skepticism from the very beginning. His failure to recognize that speaks to the fact that he does not know how Canadians view him and shows that his own view of Canadians is deficient. Someone with his past political affiliations, leading a party populated with extremists should have gone out of his way to avoid controversy and prevent the appearance of arrogance. He failed miserably.

John Reynolds, co-chairman of Harper's campaign for this run, said it all with this one line: "A campaign is a campaign". Indeed. In other words, the campaign, a tightly scripted strategic advertising effort, had nothing at all to do with how Harper would govern or behave once he occupied the prime minister's chair.

David Emerson remains unrepentant after his treachery and refuses to resign after a huge outcry from his constituents. Why? He didn't expect the violent reaction of the voters in his riding and was not ready for it. Harper and Emerson failed to understand the effect and the reason Emerson was elected as a Liberal. The voters will decide what is in their own best interest - not Harper and not Emerson. (Notwithstanding, the implicit reasons for Emerson's inclusion in Cabinet now seem to be complete garbage.)

Fortier, who we were told will be eventually required to run for a seat in the Commons in order to legitimize his scandalous appointment to Cabinet has made it clear that is not his intention. It now raises the question as to how this deal was reached. While Harper has said Fortier would be required to run in the next election, Fortier has rejected the idea of running in a by-election should a Montreal seat open up. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that this is a deal whereby Fortier sits in Cabinet during this minority government only and doesn't run at all in the future. He keeps his Senate seat and vanishes into the political swamp - out of government. That Fortier would, within a few days of being the centre of a political storm, enunciate "I didn't run in the election because I didn't want to run in the election," again speaks of a failure to understand the expectations of Canadians generally and the extreme skepticism with which Harper's ascendancy to office is viewed. Again, the reaction of Fortier and Harper demonstrates a complete underestimation of what should have been a totally predictable reaction.

The appointment of Gordon O'Connor as Defence Minister is again an indication that the Conservatives and particularly Harper, have failed to grasp the expectations of Canadians. During the campaign he daily tossed around an ethics package that suggested he would end conflicts of interest among political leaders and senior civil servants. It doesn't matter that the particular instance of O'Connor's past lobbying isn't precisely covered in Harper's ethics package. Most Canadians never read it. But, they did hear the message and the expectation was that Harper would live by his words - both literally and optically. O'Connor's appointment to Defence is viewed as a first violation of the promise to steer well clear of such situations. Whether this is a "near miss" or not in Harper's view of ethics, Canadians see one thing. Different party; same load of manure. While other party leaders may have been able to get away with it, Harper does not seem to understand that he will be given no such latitude.

All of this exposes a Conservative Party vulnerability. While they ran a tight and smooth campaign, the spin machine that kept them on track shut down at 241600Z Jan 06, the morning after the election. Why? Because they didn't think they'd need it. They thought they would slide into power much the same as other past new governments; that the breathing room would be there. They weren't ready for the extreme skepticism, the critical eye and Canadians who were wide awake. And the reason they weren't ready is because they cannot understand how Canadians view them. The only way they could have enticed Canadians into the normal post-election slumber would have been to be totally honest, completely ethical and free of all treachery. Now they cannot move because Canadians have never really trusted them. And it's too late to run up the spin machine.

Harper is reported to be a control freak. While he may not expect the adoration of Canadians, he does expect obedience. That again goes to his myopic view of Canadians and the country. Canadians don't take kindly to being ordered about by politicians. Harper may be able to demand obedience at Cabinet, at caucus and even within his party. He needs to get a grip on the concept that such a leadership style will not work outside of those limited venues. Not a few Conservative supporters are suggesting Harper has the authority to demand compliance with whatever decisions he makes - majority rules, after all.

That's right, and that means that the 63.7 percent of those who voted for someone other than the Conservatives constitute that majority. Harper needs to learn something very quickly: Elections are held to determine who is going to take direction; not who is going to give it. The government does not direct the will of obedient Canadians; Canadians direct the will of an obedient government.

Harper needs to get over himself quickly or he'll find that his term in office is extremely short, terribly uncomfortable and very bloody.

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