Column for May 21, 2006

Harper crosses a line

One can almost understand, even forgive Stephen Harper’s inability to stop running for office. Almost.

After all, there will be another federal election, probably within the next two years, perhaps sooner if the stars and moon align in a favourable way for the prime minister, and Harper would be remiss if he didn’t keep touting the greater glories of his government and pointing out the shortcomings of his opponents.

Perhaps just as important, Harper has an agenda, the now not-so-hidden one to remake Canada in his own right-wing image. He doesn’t have time or patience for those who stand in his way.

If the opposition parties won’t support his plan to eliminate the gun registry, he’ll end-run parliament and the rule of law, declaring, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, amnesty for lawbreakers who refused to register their weapons, effectively keeping his promises to the gun lobby while bulldozing over public and police objections that, despite its disastrous implementation, the registry might still be a good, crime-fighting tool.


If the opposition parties won’t support his nominee to head a new non-partisan federal appointments commission because it turns out that — whatever his qualities as a corporate CEO, or his willingness to do the job for free — Gwyn Morgan is a fierce partisan with decidedly discriminatory views on some immigrants… well, screw them too.

In the interest of implementing his much-ballyhooed accountability program, Harper could easily have come up with another, more acceptable nominee. Liberal MP David McGuinty, for example, suggested Mr. Justice John Gomery, who spent millions of our tax dollars coming up with suggestions for a m ore accountable, transparent system.

Harper, however, was having none of that. He announced he was going to hold his breath and not nominate anyone else — Who knew, marveled NDP leader Jack Layton, “there was only one man out of the 32 million Canadians who was qualified to take this position?” — until he wins his majority government. So much for parliamentary accountability. (Mr. Harper, in fact, seems determined to make the late Pierre Trudeau, who once dismissed MPs as “nobodies,” look like a cuddly Mr. Parliamentary Democrat.)

Again, one can put that down to political gamesmanship — a match, it is fair to say, the opposition parties are just as willing to play.

But Stephen Harper crossed a line this week when he decided, for no reason beyond sleazy partisan mischief-making, to introduce a surprise motion to extend Canada’s military mission to Afghanistan for two more years, and then demanded an immediate vote on the motion with just six hours of debate.

Harper suggested this was necessary because NATO has asked Canada to assume overall command of the Afghanistan mission in 2008. Even if you accepted that rationale — and Harper himself apparently did not since he declared he would go ahead with a unilateral one-year extension even if MPs said no — there was no Jack-Bauer, clock’s-ticking, save-the-world urgency to get it done.

Harper could have announced the parliamentary debate for next week or even a month from now, and given all Canadians an opportunity to participate in this critically important life-and-death decision for our country.

We could have finally discussed whether there really is a continuing role for Canada in Afghanistan. If there is, we could have debated our objectives and whether we need more combat troops or more provincial reconstruction teams to achieve them. We could have talked about the signposts we should use to measure our success. And we could have considered how we will know when the mission has reached its end point, and what our exit strategy should be.

After that, our parliamentarians could have done what parliamentarians do best — express Canadians’ considered viewpoints in a candid but respectful way and, then, finally, vote on the motion.

But the purpose of this exercise was not to have a considered debate on Afghanistan. Harper simply wanted to embarrass the Liberals by showing up the divisions within the party — divisions that appear to mirror those in the country. As a partisan ploy, it succeeded. As a contribution to public policymaking, it was a cynical failure. We have a right to expect more from a man who wants us to give him a majority government.

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