Entries from July 2007 ↓

Deflating Jim

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(Illustration: National Post)
Some months ago I had a promising young buck volunteering in my office. One day he abruptly announced he was leaving, going to offer himself to Jim Flaherty.

What?, I said incredulously. Leave moi to go and work for that dead-end politician?

“It’s an open secret on the Hill he’s organizing his leadership team now,” the aggressive little hotshot replied, “and I want to be a part of it.” So off he went, enveloped in a cloud of ambition.

Well, you know politics. It’s like the prairie weather. If you don’t like it, just wait a spell. Today the diminutive and feisty minister of finance is dead meat when it comes to leadership. He may also be about to suffer a fate which has befallen a relative few people holding what’s often considered to be the second most important portfolio in government.

It’s a dramatic descent, given the fact Mr. Flaherty was elected to the House of Commons just 18 months ago. At that time the former Ontario Treasurer, devote and spiritual family man, buddy of televangelist Charles McVety, Mike Harris tough guy and twice-defeated right-winger provincial leadership contender was handed a dream job by his new boss, Stephen Harper.

The economy was firing on all cylinders, yet without any noticeable inflation and in an environment of low and stable interest rates. The federal coffer was busting with a $13 billion surplus. A spirit of confidence and desire for political change had brought the Conservatives to power, albeit with a minority, and economic issues were at the heart of its agenda. It hardly gets any better than this for a finance minister. No wonder that within months Flaherty’s people were stitching together the leadership team they were sure would eventually spring to life.

After all, Mr. Harper had hardly won an impressive victory, given the sponsorship scandal, a tired 13-year-old Liberal regime, a flawless campaign, a media honeymoon and bushels of money. It was the Conservative leader’s second election campaign, and Flaherty supporters were convinced if PMSH did not turn his minority into a majority by the summer of 2007, he’d end up being a footnote.

But what they weren’t counting on was their boss attracting flies. Not this many, at least. Not this fast.

The income trust thing hit hard. Pushed hard by Finance officials to lay waste to the sector, Mr. Flaherty got a shrug from the prime minister, and tried to get it done in one short, precision bomb blast. Didn’t work. Hundreds of thousands of investors who had billions in savings affected howled and organized. Many Canadian trusts, which months earlier had been robust and profitable, were sold to US interests for pennies on the dollar. Mighty BCE going private was blamed on the impetuous finance minister, while his arguments about the need to rescue at-risk tax revenues were sliced to shreds on Bay Street.

Hard on the heels of that, Mr. Flaherty tried to end the ability of companies to write off interest on money borrowed to expand outside the country. It was a giant policy blunder. He was forced to retreat.

For some inexplicable reason, Mr. Flaherty let himself be talked into raising the basic income tax rate from the level to which Liberals had lowered it before the election. Then he denied it. Millions of citizens who checked their tax returns saw he was lying.

The guy’s next budget increased federal spending to unheard-of levels, prompting some to caution it would be inflationary. Soon, the Bank of Canada was warning about rising prices, and jacked up interest rates. People’s mortgages got more expensive. This all added to the soaring Canadian dollar, which hurt exporters and helped erode a few thousand more manufacturing jobs.

Worse, Mr. Flaherty said on budget night the days of federal-provincial bickering were over, as he increased transfer payments to Quebec by more than 30% and abrogated the Atlantic Accord with our maritime provinces. Understandably, premiers like Danny Williams went nuts. Flaherty’s legendary temper flashed and he published an open letter saying he’d never do a side deal, in order to win “a few votes.” Well, so much for Atlantic Canada. So much for leadership.

prenticedec17.jpg The speculation in Ottawa now is the PMSH will shuffle his cabinet in the coming weeks, then prorogue Parliament, bringing a new team to implement the Throne Speech’s new agenda. The finance minister will be Jim Prentice, I hear.

He’s got a phantom leadership team, too. But no flies.

Minister of optics

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Workers carry off oil-soaked materials from last week’s BC spill.

bairdjan14.jpg There he was, of course, staring into a pool of oily water, and later saying grimly to the camera, “the polluter will pay.” Federal enviro minister John Baird was doing last week what he does best – communicating a political message, this time against the backdrop of an accidental oil spill in Burnaby.

Some were glad he jetted out from Ottawa for the event. Others were dismayed at a politician taking advantage of hardship. Nonetheless, it made for a powerful follow-up to Mr. Baird’s late winter photo op in Stanley Park, surveying the damage done there by freak storms.

Yes, he’s a clever politician. But what of climate change, the ill-fated Kyoto accord and the Harper Government’s plan to meaningfully address the issue which Canadians say is our most pressing? By all accounts, the latest federal green plan – which was panned by all environmentalists – will not be coming to Parliament for a vote. It also appears the government plans on completely ignoring a vote passed by a majority of MPs requiring it to come up with a plan to implement Kyoto.

john-godfrey.jpg So, where are we right now? Is there a concrete and effective climate change plan in place? Or do we have a government more interested in optics than action?

MPtv asked John Godfrey, chairman of the Liberal federal caucus environment committee, for his take on a subject we can never take for granted.

mptvsmall9.jpg To view the video, click here.

Stanton’s last stand

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A few months ago, Ontario Conservative MP Bruce Stanton was the subject of an article, and many comments, on this blog. His youthful constituency assistant had used a Commons-issued Blackberry to respond to the endless stream of emails an MP receives. This time, in response to an angry and jilted income trust investor who’d lost $80,000 thanks to the Conservatives, the assistant sent this response: “Get a life.”

But because the Berry was in Mr. Stanton’s name, and an office email address was attached to that rude message, the MP himself looked as if he had sent it. In conversation with me, Bruce was adamant he had not. In the end, the assistant took the fall for bad judgment.

“I just don’t do this sort of thing,” Bruce told me at the time, “ and this is not the way I speak to people.” And I think it isn’t. Mr. Stanton strikes me as a fairly gentle person. The next time I was in the House of Commons when he was present, he came and sat beside me and thanked me for having been fair to him. In politics, that’s highly principled. Or highly weird.

The morals of the tale, I said at the time, were to make sure you answered your own mail, not break promises to people, and apologize and set things right when the situation calls for it. Hanging your assistant out to dry does not exactly cut it.

But, sadly, we’re not done with Mr. Stanton yet.

The local paper, and the local Liberal candidate in Simcoe North, have made a splash about an 18-year-old supporter of the MP who has done what young men do so well, and made a total ass of himself. The Kid, a member of the Simcoe North Conservative youth association, decided to use Facebook to help Mr. Stanton out by alleging his opponent is supporting local gays for political purposes. “Will you go that far for votes?” the young one asked.

But, it gets worse.

facebook.jpg The Kid, ingeniously using his own name, signed up as a supporter of a Facebook group called “Fuck Womens Rights.” After the local paper nabbed him for an interview, he swore he was not homophobic nor against equality rights for women. MP Stanton, by the way, is a member of the House of Commons committee on the Status of Women.

Needless to say, this is big news in Simcoe North. The Liberal candidate, John Waite, is intimately involved. The Kid, I am sure, is apoplectic. Obviously he is an idiot. But youth tends to do that to some people.

Nobody should be out to crucify a young man whose just done it to himself. Thanks to Google, this will never, ever, ever go away. The punishment meted out in the Internet age has but one term, and it is life.

The more valid point is how an MP, a public figure, deals with a situation like this. When his assistant dissed a citizen, Mr. Stanton did not apologize, but had his employee do it instead. And in the instance of his youthful supporter offending community standards, what was the response?

To the charge The Kid was homophobic, alleging the Liberal candidate was courting gays, Mr. Stanton said: “It’s a pointed question. If Mr. Waite is interested in getting into the arena of public life, he might want to get used to that. Pointed questions come your way.”

To the “Fuck Womens Rights” membership of his supporter, Mr. Stanton said: “I think any group that would use those kind of pejoratives to describe its purpose would not be a group I’d have any time for. It’s regrettable that (Facebook) gets used for what I would call derogatory types of inferences, and I would counsel anybody who has any affiliation with our organization not to be participants in those types of groups.”

Mr. Stanton told the Orillia Packet & Times, this was all “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Of course, an MP is not responsible for anything a volunteer supporter, or party office holder, writes or says. Each of us have hundreds, or thousands, of people with local party cards or positions. Mr. Stanton, I am sure, did not know in advance what The Kid was going to publish online and was probably appalled to learn of it.

But did he go far enough? Should he have tried to justify the homophobic remark as being normal for ‘public life’? Why didn’t he condemn Facebook for allowing a misogynistic group to be created? Why not send out a message to every hormone-drenched teenaged boy that this is unacceptable? Why did he take this as a political attack, requiring a personal defense, instead an attack on decency and tolerance? Why not speak up as a community leader, instead of a cornered partisan?

Moral: If you’re an MP, act like it.