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Our Gang in Ottawa

What did BC's MPs get done this year? First of two.

By Tom Barrett and Richard Warnica 11 Jul 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee and Richard Warnica is a Tyee senior editor.

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Stockwell Day: Safety issues

Canada's Parliament has adjourned for the summer, B.C. MPs are now back in their ridings tending barbeques, and so let us review their performance.

Today we offer highlights (or not) from the session for B.C.'s five cabinet ministers. Tomorrow, Tory backbenchers as well as Liberals and the NDP get their turn.

Jay Hill
Conservative, Prince George-Peace River
Secretary of State and Chief Government Whip

Being the whip for a minority government is never an easy job, but Hill's life didn't get any easier when he ended up being identified as the anti-democracy point man for Canada's year-and-a-half-old government.

Hill gave each Tory who chaired a Commons committee a 200-page binder chock-full of tips on how to use the committees to push the government's agenda -- even if it meant subverting the committee's workings. The binder, which was passed on to Don Martin of the Calgary Herald, had advice like:

Hill got all testy when Conservatives used his manual to put the kibosh on the Commons environment committee, which had been scheduled to hear from Simon Fraser University economist Mark Jaccard.

Jaccard had just released a study that concluded that the Tories' climate change program won't work.

Told the committee had shut down rather than hear Jaccard's unwelcome news, the "usually affable" Hill "snapped" that he didn't know nothin' about nothin'.

Luckily for the Tory whip, nobody off Parliament Hill cares a hoot about these sorts of parliamentary games.

And his bosses seem to be pleased with his hardball tactics. Recently, Hill made the Globe and Mail's list of possible replacements for the distinctly replaceable defence minister, Gordon O'Connor, even though Hill's not bilingual.

David Emerson
Conservative, Vancouver Kingsway
Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics

B.C.'s most famous overnight Conservative is still being coy about whether he's going to run in the next federal election. He scotched rumours in February that he was planning to switch to the more Tory-friendly Quadra riding, saying that if he ran again he would run in Kingsway, where angry voters have been stalking him ever since he ditched the Grits to join the government.

He's still promising a decision on his political future "soon," but party insiders reportedly don't expect him to run again.

As the Gateway and Olympics guy, Emerson got to hand out plenty of cash to the province, but still got dumped on by Victoria and opposition MPs, who claimed the Tories' March budget shortchanged B.C. to buy off voters in Quebec.

A not-inconsiderably irked Emerson huffed back: "I would argue that this is a disproportionately beneficial budget for B.C."

Premier Gordon Campbell suggested in reply that Emerson didn't know what he was talking about.

Meanwhile, the U.S. softwood lumber agreement, which was supposed to buy trade peace in our time, looked a little soft around the edges during its first few months of operation.

The Financial Post reported in June that Canada and the U.S. have launched a new round of talks rather than send a fresh batch of U.S. complaints to arbitration.

The Post reported that Emerson issued a "gag order" to Canadian lumber industry executives to stop them from saying anything impolitic to the media. Emerson denied the charge, but added that some bureaucrats may have told some executives to be careful not to say anything that could become part of a future arbitration.

More of a gag suggestion, perhaps.

Chuck Strahl
Conservative, Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board

The agriculture minister spent much of the last sitting duking it out with farmers over the fate of the Canadian Wheat Board.

The board markets wheat and barley on behalf of Canadian farmers. Striking a blow for free markets, the Harper government moved to eliminate the board's marketing monopoly.

Strahl declared the monopoly dead after a referendum among farmers that was marked by tactics the Regina Leader-Post's financial editor described as "reprehensible, undemocratic and possibly illegal."

The editor is apparently not a Strahl fan.

"Here," he wrote, "are just a few examples of the questionable tactics used: misleading plebiscite options; issuing 'gag orders' against CWB directors and staff; firing the CWB president during the election; arbitrarily changing the voters' list during the election; disenfranchising thousands of producers; sending multiple, numbered ballots to producers, then calling them to ask which ballot they wanted counted; no third-party spending limits; etc."

Gag orders? Undemocratic? A subtle pattern begins to emerge.

Strahl also got into a scrap with the local agglomeration of marketing boards, SM-5, accusing them of pursuing "the stupidest tactic I can think of" in World Trade Organization talks.

"Inaccurate," the boards rejoined. Also, "inappropriate" and "ludicrous."

It wasn't all bare-knuckle policy-making for Strahl, however. In March, his wife, Deb, gave the hobby farmer a new tractor, complete with "hydrostatic drive" and cushioned seat.

Stockwell Day
Conservative, Okanagan-Coquihalla
Minister of Public Safety

Stockwell Day had his hands on almost every hot button file in the last session. From Afghan detainees to passport foul-ups and the RCMP, Day was there.

And while Day's efforts were praised by some, others were less impressed. The year ended with Day being publicly dressed down by a world famous scientist.

As public safety minister, Day had the unenviable task of overseeing the RCMP in what was by any measure a disastrous year. Bookended by the twin scandals of Maher Arar and the pension mess, Canada's national police force took a beating in the House this session.

But even after an investigator he appointed found the force "horribly broken" in June, Day decided against a full public inquiry. "This is a time for action," Day told reporters at the time.

The Ottawa Sun's Greg Weston probably had a different action in mind when he wrote this column. "Why," he asked, "is Stockwell Day still in charge of the Mounties?"

Day's handling of the Afghan detainee issue also received mixed reviews.

Day's office oversees Canadian prison guards serving in Afghanistan. When the story broke that prisoners captured by Canadians had been tortured in Afghan jails, Day was one of many Tories unable to get their stories straight.

On April 26, Defence Minister Gordon O'Conner announced that Canada had a new agreement to monitor prisoners in Afghan custody. The next day, Day contradicted his colleague by claiming that Canadian prison guards had always had access to detainees.

But on April 29, Day himself was put in place by Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada. "No Canadians, including corrections officers, have monitored treatment of prisoners turned over by Canadian military forces," Omar Samad told CanWest News.

Still, Day emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed. He even earned a citation as a top Question Period performer from the Globe and Mail for his efforts.

Not everyone was a fan, however. Day's creationist beliefs earned him the ire of one of the world's most prominent atheists near the end of the session.

"This man is a cabinet minister?" Richard Dawkins told the Globe and Mail. "Tell him his belief is equivalent to believing that the width of North America, from shall we say New York to San Francisco, is 7.8 yards -- that's the scale of the error he's buying into. This man is the minister responsible for security? He's clearly a complete idiot -- or ignorant, anyway. Ignorance by itself is no crime, but ignorance in a cabinet minister is."

Gary Lunn
Conservative, Saanich-Gulf Islands
Minister of Natural Resources

Gary Lunn was a busy man in the last session. The natural resource minister managed to open the door to nuclear power in the oil sands and erase a moratorium on tanker traffic in B.C.'s northern coast, all while representing one of the greenest ridings in Canada, Saanich-Gulf Islands.

In May, Lunn approved a plan to bury future nuclear waste in deep pits near as-yet-unnamed communities. The plan, experts say, opens the door to a new generation of Canadian nuclear plants. Talks are already underway with communities in Northern Alberta interested in getting a tar sands fuelling generator off the ground.

All that oil, of course, has to go somewhere. And the fastest way to get it to the voracious markets in Asia would be through B.C.'s northern ports, ports previously thought to be unusable because of a ban on oil tanker traffic in the region.

But that was before Lunn hit the scene. Moratorium, Lunn now says, what moratorium? "There has never been a moratorium," Lunn told the Times Colonist in June, only a "voluntary exclusion zone for tanker traffic that comes from Alaska."

Voila, problem solved.

So should the dirty minister worry about his clean riding in the next election? Probably not.

With the progressive vote set to split between three small 'g' green candidates, Lunn should stroll to another win.

Tomorrow, part two: how did B.C.'s Tory backbenchers, Liberals and New Democrats perform?

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