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Federal Politics

Duffy Bomb Raises Question: What Was Harper Thinking?

Senator revolt only the latest in people and policies that went south for PM.

Crawford Kilian 23 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Mike Duffy's speech on the floor of the Senate Tuesday afternoon was one of the most momentous in Canadian history.

After months of accusations, insinuations and mockery, one of the most despised politicians in the country stood up and struck back. As a lifelong political journalist, Duffy must know that when you strike at a king (or a prime minister), you must strike to kill. He has done his considerable best.

However gratifying Tuesday's events must be to the majority of Canadians who voted for someone other than Harper, they raise one baffling question: How has Stephen Harper flourished for all these years, both as prime minister and before, when his political judgment is patently terrible?

The three senators currently in trouble are Harper appointees: Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau. But they're only the most recent examples of people and policies that somehow seemed to him like a good idea at the time.

Remember Helena Guergis, the prima donna always seated behind Harper in Question Period, who became an unperson overnight? He signed her nomination papers. Or Bev Oda, of the $16 glass of orange juice? He appointed her, then defended her until he didn't, and she departed.

Remember Dean Del Mastro, Harper's own parliamentary secretary and talking-points parrot, now out of the Conservative caucus and facing charges of excessive campaign spending two elections back? Or Vic Toews, the Public Safety minister who divided the world into Harper's friends and supporters of the child pornographers?

At least Toews got out while he could; Peter Kent, as Harper-appointed environment minister, earned Canada an unbroken string of "dinosaur" awards at climate-change conferences. He deserved every one of them. Gary Goodyear, during his stint as minister of state for Science and Technology, refused to say whether he believes in evolution.

Resources Minister Joe Oliver, at 73 a living argument for mandatory retirement at 65, single-handedly ruined the chances for the Enbridge Northern Gateway early in 2012 when he opened the debate with an attack on environmentalists "and other radical groups."

'The prime minister was very clear'

Admittedly, Oliver's Harvard MBA makes him one of the Conservatives' few educated caucus members. Perhaps Harper had no choice about him, and couldn't afford to ditch such a relatively bright light. He clearly doesn't trust most of his own caucus to express anything but highly scripted talking points: "The prime minister was very clear... again, the prime minister was very clear... we've been very clear."

But consider also the bizarre policy decisions that came out of nowhere: canceling the long-form census on grounds of protecting Canadians' privacy. Shutting off funding to the Experimental Lakes Area, which had made Canada the world leader in freshwater-ecology studies, saving us from both phosphate pollution and acid rain. Closing down one of Canada's busiest Coast Guard stations at Kitsilano.

Even if we assume that Harper's garage-sale economics is intended to dig everything out of Canada that can possibly be sold, such policies make no sense. A spoonful of sugar would have made the bitumen go down much more easily. Instead, countless Canadians began to worry about what the hell was going on.

For that matter, consider the appointment of Mike Duffy himself: a pompous journalist who had disgraced himself in 2000 at the funeral of Pierre Trudeau by reminding Margaret Trudeau that it was the birthday of their dead son Michel.

Anyone with sound political judgment would have instantly labelled Duffy as toxic. Instead, nine years later Harper named him to the Senate.

Human sacrifices to the suburban base

According to Duffy in his Senate speech, he was now in deep trouble not because of anything he had done wrong, but rather the perception of his actions among the Conservative base. This base, whether in the suburbs of Toronto or those of Calgary, was the only group of Canadians Harper cared about. To placate those franchised ignoramuses, Harper would charter fleets of buses under which to throw those who'd failed him.

Rather than ditch the ignoramuses and seek an electorate among educated Canadians, Harper picked and hired other ignoramuses, and expected them to succeed. Hence the turnover among his communications people, and in the PMO.

In only one sense can Harper's judgment be respected: He spent years studying his fellow citizens, and decided that after a generation of pretty smart governments like Brian Mulroney's and Jean Chretien's, Canadians were still dumb enough to be deceived.

With that insight he rose from obscurity to leadership of a crank fringe party, and then to a hostile takeover of the once-great Progressive Conservatives, and then to a succession of minority governments. At every step, he made stupid mistakes. But his opponents were divided, and enough ignoramuses kept him in power and then gave him a majority.

No wonder his judgment never improved. It never had to, until a few of his ill-chosen followers decided to pull him down with them under the bus.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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