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The distractions piling up on Stephen Harper’s desk

From John Geddes in Macleans Magazine

Even before the media-shy Wright stumbled unintentionally into the spotlight, the Conservatives had arguably sunk to their lowest point since Harper first won power in 2006. They’ve spent most of 2013 on the defensive over controversies such as companies using a federal immigration program to hire foreign workers instead of Canadians, and an auditor general’s report that found the government couldn’t account for how $3.1 billion earmarked for public security was actually spent. Promised trade deals haven’t been inked. Highly touted pipelines are in doubt. Overall economic growth is tepid. Tory attack ads against Justin Trudeau evidently fizzled, since the Liberals now top the polls under their new leader. And Harper can’t count anymore on lock-step discipline from his MPs, after some defiant Conservative backbenchers recently asserted their right to speak in the House without permission from the party leadership.

No wonder a crisis mood was setting in before an emergency Conservative caucus meeting Harper called early this week to try to first calm, and then rally, his troops. He voiced predictable disappointment over the Senate mess, didn’t dare to mention Wright and then urged his MPs to get back to basics. “Canadians are looking to us to protect them—their jobs, their families, their communities,” he said. “That is what we must be focused on.” Goldy Hyder, long-time Tory insider and president of the public-affairs and -relations firm Hill & Knowlton Canada, says Harper has plenty of time to orchestrate a rebound. After all, this summer will mark only about the midpoint of his first majority term. “The issue,” Hyder says, “is how you use that half-time break to develop a strategy to execute for the second half.”

Harper’s lecture to caucus, which was open to the media, was his first public show of personal attention to a dangerously volatile situation. A more methodical rebuilding effort is expected to begin with a major speech at a Tory policy convention in late June. Later in the summer, he is widely expected to shuffle his cabinet, before a Speech from the Throne next fall recasts his agenda. All this was in the works before Wright’s stunning fall. Now, Harper must strive to stay on track against howls of opposition outrage. The NDP suggests Wright’s decision to cut that fat cheque was linked to a Senate committee’s agreement to soften the more damaging parts of an audit report on Duffy’s expenses. The official Opposition has asked RCMP Commissioner Robert Paulson to investigate. “What we do know is that a secret cheque was written for $90,000,” said NDP ethics critic, Charlie Angus. “And we understand there may have been interference with that Senate report. This suggests a much larger issue that is at the very desk of the Prime Minister.”

Harper finds himself under direct fire after several months of watching many of his top cabinet performers forced into defensive postures. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney had to scramble to announce changes to that Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which he had previously promoted as a big success, after news of companies passing over Canadians to make room for cheaper labour from abroad. Human Resources Minister Diane Finley tabled stricter Employment Insurance eligibility rules last year, but still hasn’t quelled the backlash over the impact on seasonal workers, and now faces the Atlantic-province premiers jointly demanding a halt to the changes. Foreign Minister John Baird is fighting in the United Nations to stave off a bid by Qatar to lure away the prestigious headquarters of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization from Montreal, but may be hampered by ill will among Arab countries and beyond, generated by Harper’s unbending support for Israel.

Still, foreign affairs, immigration and EI aren’t essential ingredients of the Harper formula. What matters more is his image as a prudent spender of public money and a smart strategist on the economy. Yet his government is looking vulnerable on both those fronts, too. That $3.1-billion gap the auditor general reported in federal accounting has made it difficult lately for Treasury Board President Tony Clement to boast of the Tories’ attention to every taxpayer’s dime. When it comes to reckless spending, another favourite opposition target is the estimated $46-billion plan to buy 65 F-35 fighter jets. Despite announcing late last year that other fighter-jet options would be considered, the government recently paid about $40 million to remain in the U.S.-led F-35 consortium until at least next fall, which means this drawn-out military-procurement mess remains very much alive.

Maybe it’s a lack of strategic thinking

A shortage of strategic thinking across many policy areas might be a reason the Harper government has lacked a feeling of forward thrust in recent months. David Zussman, a University of Ottawa professor of public-sector management, says Harper’s Conservatives don’t often turn to senior bureaucrats for ideas, relying on them only to “loyally implement” policy, rather than offer advice on its broad direction. Cutting mandarins out of the high-level planning leaves political aides to do more of the deep thinking—and many Conservatives admired Wright as the deepest of them all. Along with managing the Prime Minister’s Office and chairing a key weekly meeting with cabinet ministers’ chiefs of staff, Wright selectively stickhandled problematic files. 

It’s going to be a tough two years ahead.  I am not saying he won’t be re-elected but this isn’t a government that does things easily.

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