Friday, February 10, 2006

NDP Ethics in Question

Principles, integrity, accountability -- in politics as in life, they mean doing what is right, not what is expedient. Principles are supposed to remain consistent and not change depending personal or political gain.

How convenient then, that the NDP is calling for the investigation of the Prime Minister for breeching Section 8 of the Code of Ethics, which states:
"When performing parliamentary duties and functions, a Member shall not act
in any way to further his or her private interests or those of a member of the
Member's family, or to improperly further another person's private interests."

People have said that consistency dictates that if you were against floor crossing when Belinda did it, that you should also be against it now that Emerson has done it.

If that's the case, is the reverse not also true?

Go back a year. (If you can't be bothered with the history, skip to the last two paragraphs).

In late March, early April 2005, Gomery was still big and the Conservatives were ahead in the polls. The Liberals feared the Conservatives believed they had a chance to win an election, so they might take this window of opportunity to bring down the government. They decided to yank 'Opposition Days' removing any threat that the opposition could bring any business to the House -- so there couldn't be a non-confidence motion.

The three opposition parties were justifiably outraged that their parliamentary right to Opposition Days had been arbitrarily revoked. Harper, as the leader of the Official Opposition decided to call Martin's bluff. The government wasn't going to allow them to bring business to the House so the Conservatives would now vote against the budget rather than abstaining. Bloc and the NDP were already against the budget, if the Conservatives joined them, this would bring the government down.

The government then refused to bring their own budget for a vote Martin had his caucus filibuster their own budget to prevent it coming to a vote.

Knowing the filibuster couldn't last forever, Martin took to the airwaves and whinged, giving rise to the infamous statements: 'Let Gomery do his work!' and 'Canadians don't want an election!' The media came away parroting those lines. Instead of focussing on the government actions that had thwarted democracy and created the acrimony in the House, the media reported that Harper was 'angry'. A public who hadn't been paying close attention didn't understand why. The media never really answered except to point to the Gomery inquiry, which really wasn't the catalist to these events.

Jack Layton got up that same night and pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He started the ritualistically recited mantra that he was committed to 'making this parliament work' . Martin took the bait and the two of them along with Buzz Hargrove cooked up a deal in a hotel room. The deal would provide vague outlines of where the NDP wanted money directed, but had none of the specifics of a 'real' budget. Layton called for $4.6 billion in new spending after the removal of corporate tax cuts from the original budget. The NDP could lay claim to influence. The Liberals were saved by a hair.

Business received a nudge and wink that their tax cuts would stay, and the socialists convinced their constituency that money would begin to flow immediately. For the price of a lie, the Liberals bought 19 votes.

At the first opportunity (May 10) the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois indicated their lack of confidence in the government by passing a motion in the House, adding an amendment to a bill which called on a parliamentary committee to request the government's resignation. The motion passed, 153-150. Despite the fact that this motion clearly indicated the government did not have the confidence of the majority of MPs in the House, the government ignored the vote declaring that the motion was a procedural one (without benefit of Opposition Days -- no business could be brought forward by the opposition in the usual manner, the government refused to bring the budget to a vote -- so this route was taken as the only route available).

The Conservatives and Bloc pointed out that according to parliamentary conventions, the government is obligated to quickly introduce a formal confidence vote which, if passed, would necessitate the dissolution of Parliament. The government came out the next day with the following statement:
On May 17, voters in British Columbia will be going to the polls in a provincial election. Next Tuesday and Wednesday, I (Paul Martin) will be in Regina to welcome the Queen to Canada. On Thursday, May 19, I will be in Ottawa. And I am proposing that there be, on that day, a vote on the budget bill. This vote will be a matter of confidence. . . By scheduling this vote, I am respecting my obligations to our Parliamentary tradition. I call on Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe to respect their obligations – to demonstrate respect for Parliament and for Canadians by ensuring this House is able to function between now and the day of the vote, and by committing to Canadians that they will honour and recognize the outcome of the confidence vote.
Remember -- the government had already LOST a procedural vote 153-150 and refused to recognise it as a confidence vote -- but look at the last sentence of that press release -- it exhorts the opposition to 'honour and recognize the outcome of the confidence vote.' scheduled over a week away.
The Liberals used Paul Martin's itinerary and unrelated events in the country, to grant themselves a full week in which to shore up their shaky grasp on power.

May 17 Conservative MP Belinda Stronach crossed the floor and joined the government. Her 'principled' stand included accepting a plum Cabinet role. Stronach used this opportunity to slag Stephen Harper, saying: "I do not believe the party leader is truly sensitive to the needs of each part of the country and just how big and complex Canada really is." She suggested she was uncomfortable with the Conservatives 'working with the Bloc' to bring down the government because it threatened national unity. This ignores the fact that without opposition parties co-operating on issues of confidence the government could never be toppled.

Had Stronach made this move over 'principle' it would have been made immediately after a caucus meeting the previous week where the Conservatives unanimously agreed to attempt to bring down the government -- instead, she stood beside her caucus-mates and was one of the 153 who voted against the government. She told no one she was leaving the Conservatives -- not her constituency office, not her staff, not her boyfriend (sound familiar?)

The subsequent remarks of some provincial Conservative MLAs about 'whores' and 'dipsticks' were the major concern of the NDP that week. They were in a tizzy about how 'sexist' those statements are. The media focussed on the broken heart of her ex-boyfriend Peter MacKay. The one week delay in the confidence vote benefitted the governing party (hence the reason behind the unheeded calls for a quick confidence vote) but they weren't the only ones to benefit.

There was no country-wide outrage. There were no protests. With the exception of some angry Conservatives, there was no call for Belinda to resign and stand in a byelection. Stephen Harper never suggested that she should -- and neither did Jack Layton. No one wrote to Bernard Shapiro.

Some would say that because she is a billionairess, principles, not perques, had to have been the motivating factor in Belinda's defection, but there are considerations beyond 'cash', which are more valuable and more coveted by someone of Stronach's wealth. Her role on the opposition benches provided her with no status and no prestige. Besides, doesn't it seem reasonable that all MPs should be held to the same standards regardless of personal fortunes?

Remarkably, the NDP, who would be the benficiary of the so-called 'NDP budget' and have the thrill of holding the balance of power for a few more months, decided neither Stronach's nor the Liberal's actions were unethical -- at least not unethical enough to suggest a byelection or to contact the Ethics Commissioner.

At least Harper has been consistent on his floor-crossing stance.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Because we can?

When a crucifix is put in a jar of urine and called art, I am offended. When the Pope was depicted as a Nazi in a cartoon on Rabble, I was offended. When Warren Kinsella (and many others since) mocked evangelical Christians for their faith, I was offended. Media in the Middle East still perpetuate the blood libel, and that offends me.

I'm not Roman Catholic, I'm not an Evangelical Christian, I'm not Jewish -- but I understand the anger and frustration at being ridiculed and having something sacred to me, portrayed with contempt and scorn.

How then, could I not be offended by cartoons that are hurtful and insulting to Muslims?

The violent 'response' to the cartoons in question is unjustifiable. The cartoons aren't the cause of the rioting - -they are simply an excuse to shed blood by people who need very little incitement to become violent.

That said, I agree completely with Peter MacKay's statement condemning the violence, but praising Canadian media for choosing not to print the cartoons.

Freedom of speech and independence of the press are essential in a democratic society. The governments where the cartoons have been printed, are absolutely correct not to apologise on behalf of newspapers over which they have no control -- and the government of Canada is right to praise the media for exercising their right not to print what might offend some Canadians.

There has been no governmental direction of Canadian media - editorial boards have decided independently not to publish the cartoons. The cartoons have been described, and are readily available online for anyone who wants to see what they're all about.

Fellow bloggers have posted or linked to these cartoons to demonstrate their freedom of expression and I respect their right to do so. I think most have posted them out of a sense of principle, and not to insult Muslims who have no part in the rioting and mayhem happening abroad.

Newspapers that don't publish the cartoons are not 'cowards'. They are exercising choice. Freedom of expression also means not being forced to print something you find objectionable. If the government was trying to impose a ban on the printing of the cartoons, then printing them to protest the ban would be laudable. As it stands, doing so in the MSM would simply be gratuitously hurtful to Muslim Canadians.

Canadian Muslims have had a measured, tempered response to cartoons that offend their faith. MacKay is right that this is the brand of Islam that needs to be promoted around the world. Why shouldn't we support that? It's in all of our interest that adherents to Islam overseas emulate their Canadian cousins, isn't it?

My choice not to post the cartoons and not to link to them, doesn't mean I endorse violence. It doesn't imply that I understand or condone the radical response to the cartoons. It doesn't suggest that I'm an apologist for Islam and it doesn't mean I don't believe in free speech.

My religion says I should do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I resent it when Christianity and Christians are mocked for a laugh, or in the name of art, or in an attempt at satire. I won't deliberately offend Muslims for no other reason than 'because I can.'


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

And this too, shall pass

Tim says that its pragmatism over principle. Valiantmauz says that the will of the voters in Vancouver-Kingsway is being ignored. Funnily enough, I don't entirely disagree. All the justifications and rationalizations don't matter to people who say that what happened just isn't right and nothing is going to change their minds.

Integrity, accountability, hypocrisy, principles, ethics -- all highly charged words in politics and all being used in the wake of the Emerson/Fortier appointments, mostly to condemn the move.

I don't want to be sucked in to that vortex of blind partisanship, nor do I want be aligned with political behaviour that is unethical --- but I find it hard to equate what's happened here with some of the serious ethical lapses of the previous government. I just don't see this as starkly black & white.

Do these appointments display a lack of integrity on the part of Stephen Harper? Harper has said he would do things differently -- read, no more patronage appointments, more transparency, elected people holding the bulk of the power etc. In my opinion, neither of these appointments changes that. He has not reversed his stance on floor crossing or Senate reform and I don't see that this betrays principles the Conservatives espoused during the election.

If one believes that Harper was looking for a way to slip a pal quietly into Senate, or that he believed he could convert the people of Vancouver Kingsway into Conservative supporters by the appointment of Emerson, then perhaps one might conclude Harper lacks integrity, but I don't think the facts don't support that conclusion.

Harper has made a temporary appointment to Senate, which in no way undermines his commitment to an elected Senate. Fortier's promise to resign his Senate seat and run in the next election should silence the idea that Harper is simply attempting to award friends. There are few benefits to the role that Fortier has agreed to play in the Harper government, and plenty of headaches are certain.

Emerson's appointment doesn't benefit the Conservative Party or its fortunes. How could it? Whether Emerson runs in that riding in the next election or not, the seat is unlikely to go Conservative. Appointing him was a risk, but it would seem that Harper truly believed Emerson could fill an important role in this government. Geography was the major factor in this post, not qualifications. If he'd appointed an unqualified Liberal in a constituency that had a higher showing for Conservatives hoping to boost their chances next time, Harper's ethics would be questionable. As it is, this appointment doesn't benefit Harper, except to give a Cabinet voice to Vancouver.

Is the Harper government somehow unaccountable? This is a minority parliament and is therefore more accountable than most. These two appointments will increase the need for a Conservative government to perform well, or else.

Emerson is accountable to his voters, but there is no question that serving your constituents in government is a far easier task than serving in Opposition. Will they care what colour his website is? Some might -- they voted Liberal, they got Tory and many are justifiably angry. Only an election will give them a chance to express that anger, and although they feel entitled to one now, that isn't going to happen.

When Stephen Harper won the leadership of the Alliance, Ezra Levant stepped down from his Calgary seat in order that Harper could run, and ultimately have a seat in parliament. That's the way these things generally work -- a bi-election is called because a member of the same party resigns his seat. That can't happen here -- the very reason these appointments were made is that there is not Conservative representation in Vancouver and Montreal -- who exactly would step down to allow a by-election in Montreal? And while it might be noble for Emerson to step down and have a by-election, his almost certain defeat wouldn't benefit anyone.

Accountability is another word people keep using, particularly in reference to Fortier.

In my opinion, Harper doesn't side-step accountability by appointing someone who won't sit in the House. Both men remain accountable, and suggestions otherwise just don't make sense to me.

A Minister's presence in the House of Commons for Question Period is hardly an assurance of accountability. Despite not having been elected, Fortier will no doubt be accountable to the Senate, and to Parliament through his Parliamentary Secretary, to Harper and to the people. Fielding Opposition questions during Question Period is not what makes a Minister accountable -- it's simply a tangible representation of accountability. As long as there is a knowledgeable person to represent the department (James Moore) to take questions, the government will be required to provide answers and therefore be accountable.
In the past, it has never seemed necessary for a Minister to be in the House to answer questions about his portfolio -- often they have been inexplicably absent. Under previous governments, having an able and well-informed proxy was not deemed necessary either. I tend to believe that because of the additional scrutiny this appointment will have created, James Moore will be amply prepared to answer any questions the Opposition would wish to put to the Minister.

Harper's character is not really the issue here. He hasn't done anything 'unethical'. His political judgment is the issue. Some would say he'd have been better to do without Cabinet representation in Vancouver and Montreal than to have given the appearance of being like governments of old. He promised to bring change and on the first day he appears to have repeated the same old patterns as previous Prime Ministers.

I think it's important to remember that neither Harper, nor the men in question, benefit materially from the appointments, nor do they improve in stature or respect within their communities. When people do something unethical or unprincipled in government, there is generally gain involved -- financial or otherwise. I just don't see that here. Neither is there the certainty of a majority government where years go by and these sorts of issues are forgotten.

As a BTW -- A commenter (and also the Letter of the Day in the NP) suggested that these appointments 'prove' Harper's team lacks the experience to run the government.

Does that mean that there was no one qualified to handle Transport in that big, smart Liberal Party so they HAD to have Lapierre? No one worthwhile to manage Health, so they HAD to have Dosanjj? No one quite intelligent enough to handle the Ministry of Complex Files -- so they HAD to have Belinda? If experience was the only factor in determining who would form government and who would be a minister, there would never be any change in government.

I guess I'm really still trying to work all this out. Sigh. Remember the simple times . . . ?


Playing the hand that's dealt you

He could have gone another way. He could have assigned the International Trade/Vancouver Olympic portfolio and the Public Works portfolio to other people. He could have spared himself a major headache, but had he done, Harper would have a very different, and more difficult problem.

Right now Harper's problem is simple optics "You criticised Belinda and the Liberals and now you've done it yourself" and "what about 'elected' and 'accountable' -- where's the change and integrity you promised?"

I'm a partisan blogger, but I've said before, the only people I love unconditionally are my kids. The Conservatives have to earn my goodwill, it won't be bestowed without question. There are other conservative minded bloggers supporting Harper despite his having made these questionable appointments -- and who upon reflection -- have decided they support the appointments themselves. With this post, I rank myself among them.

A minority government is tricky. A minority government in which you have no natural ally in parliament is even trickier. A minority government where the three major urban centres have no representatives in the House--almost too much. Harper could maneouver the first two by making compromises and bending a little, but the third -- no representation within three major urban centres -- nothing was going to change that anytime soon. Harper and his advisors have come up with a creative solution. It isn't perfect, but its workable. Both appointments have precedents. Both men have solid credentials.

The Belinda/Emerson comparison doesn't wash. Belinda was recruited/sought inducements at a time when a precarious government hovered on the brink of falling. Her walk across the floor ensured that a festering sore of a government would live on. It was a cynical power grasping move by Martin and the Liberals. Her move changed the course of political history. The irony is that had she not crossed, and had there been an election then, Martin might well have won the majority he coveted. The country was so caught up in the 'let government work' mantra, they might have punished the opposition Conservatives and Bloc for bringing down a parliament that was 'trying'.
Anyway . . .

Emerson's move hasn't happened in the same context. The government will not live or die based on Emerson's decision to join the Conservatives. Anyone making the comparison might consider that Harper had absolutely nothing to gain and a considerable amount to lose by making this move. He risked the wrath of his own caucus, the cynicism of the media and the scepticism of the public in order to have Emerson in Cabinet.

International Trade would have done well with any number of stong Conservative MPs, and the Vancouver Olympics could have been overseen by James Moore or Jay Hill. Harper didn't need Emerson's 'talents' when the Tory bench is already so strong. What Harper needed was an astute and capable person in Vancouver. He didn't have one. That was the hand that was dealt him, so he reached outside his caucus, outside his party -- it was a gutsy move. Vancouver will benefit from Emerson being on the government side of the House -- might sound like spin, but it also happens to be accurate.

Fortier's appointment is more difficult. Harper had five Quebec MPs who weren't chosen for Cabinet but could have overseen Montreal, and Public Works could have gone to the capable Diane Albonzy or any number of others. I suspect that those in Quebec who didn't make Cabinet, were surprised at having been elected at all. It's unlikely that any of these people could have shouldered the responsibility of overseeing the interests of Montreal while learning to be an effective MP. Circumventing the electoral process and appointing Fortier a Senator is a backward way to achieve the desired outcome -- a solid seat in Cabinet for Montreal. It's a backward way -- but given that the front door was closed, it was this way or the door would remain closed.

Accusations that Fortier won't be accountable because he won't take questions in the House are specious. The portfolio will be covered in the House -- perhaps even more diligently because the Minister isn't there. Not only will this Ministry be under scrutiny because of the attention it received from the Auditor General and the Gomery Inquiry -- an absentee minister will only sharpen the focus on Public Works -- could it be that's what Harper both expects and wants?

Reaction to these two appointments has run the gamit. In Toronto editorials chide Harper for the roundabout way he included Vancouver and Montreal in Cabinet, while simultaneously lamenting that no similar move was made to include Toronto. Their thinking seems to be -- it's a bad thing, but it might be better if he'd done the same for us. And they claim Harper has lost credibility?

Harper is very aware of the importance of cities to both the country, and to a hoped-for future majority government. My guess is that he knows that despite having been heavy with Cabinet Ministers under many a Liberal regime, Toronto has been under-served. Having received litte benefit from our Cabinet seats in the past, Torontonians will likely be willing to forgive the lack of seat if we see improved representation. Those who believe that we can't be represented from outside the city need only to look at City Council to remind themselves how we are served from within.

This is one of those 'wait and see' times. To my mind, the Conservatives have managed to justify the unjustifiable. But they won't get my goodwill a second time for this sort of questionable judgement call. They had better find a way to live up to their promises while not having to explain the route they took. The more you have to explain your actions, the more suspicious they become. Straightforward is best -- and that's what I'm looking for from this point on.

A lot of people have the button on their blogs: "I Support the Conservative Party and its Leader Stephen Harper" It isn't just your integrity at stake Mr. Prime Minister, it's ours.