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October 28, 2009

Hypocrisy is a Harper hallmark

Geoffrey Stevens

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One of the things that bothers me most about the Harper government is its hypocrisy.

Geoff StevensOne of the things that bothers me most about the Harper government is its hypocrisy.

Don’t get me wrong. Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are not the first to make commitments they have no intention of keeping – or to promise to do one thing when their real intent is to do the polar opposite.

With Harper and Company, however, hypocrisy has become a modus operandi.

Consider two examples: Harper’s war on patronage and his pledge of open government. These were two striking features of his struggle to lift his party out of opposition. Both were important elements of his government’s very first bill on taking office in 2006, the (so-called) Accountability Act.

It has become painfully clear that Harper never had any intention of doing anything about patronage, other than to practice it with gusto and single-minded determination. The Chrétien/Martin Liberals had proved to be extremely proficient purveyors of pork in their 13 years in office; Harper is more than keeping pace.

In the Accountability Act, Harper proposed to curb patronage by creating a Public Appointments Commission (PAC) to review the government’s choices for 3,000-odd order-in-council positions. These would not include the Senate or the federal bench, but would cover the directors and officers of dozens upon dozens of federal boards, commissions, regulatory agencies and other quasi-judicial tribunals.

The PAC was a bold initiative. It was to report to Parliament, not to the government. It meant the administration would be tempering its patronage power by voluntarily subjecting it to parliamentary oversight – something no government had ever done.

The opposition parties embraced the PAC. Then Harper sabotaged his own commission by nominating a high-profile Conservative supporter from Alberta, Gwyn Morgan, former CEO of EnCana Corp. and a man of right-wing views on immigrants, multiculturalism and unions, to be its first chair.

In other words, the Prime Minister tried to make a patronage appointment to the top job on a body intended to curb patronage – in effect, to recruit a fox to guard the hen house.

Harper had to know Morgan would never be acceptable to opposition MPs, and he wasn’t. Instead of finding someone more suitable (a retired judge perhaps), Harper disbanded the commission and cried opposition obstruction – a cry we are bound to hear repeatedly before the next election as the Conservatives continue to stuff the public payroll with Tory hacks and time-servers.

“Open Government” was a wonderful campaign issue in the wake of the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal. Unfortunately, Harper’s true intention was just the reverse. He presides over what is arguably the most closed, most secretive federal administration in last 50 years.

(For example, his public safety minister, Peter Van Loan, wants Parliament to accept a package of anti-crime measures that, taken together, would keep more convicts in federal institutions for longer periods of time. Asked last week about the impact of the measures on Canada’s prison population, he refused to disclose the government’s estimates, saying the numbers are a cabinet confidence. He wants Parliament to buy a pig in a poke.)

In the 2006 election and again in the Accountability Act, the Conservatives pledged to amend the 26-year-old Access to Information Act to make government operations more transparent. In fact, they did the opposite. The amendments increased the government’s authority to withhold information. And, in practice, the Tories have proved adept at bending, circumventing or simply ignoring the law.

Robert Marleau, the man they nominated to be Information Commissioner, was clearly frustrated by the government’s unwillingness to abide by intent of its own law. He resigned after just two years on the job, leaving behind a long list of recommendations to redress the imbalance between secrecy and openness.

However, in responses tabled last week, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson rejected Marleau’s recommendations and those of a parliamentary committee, including one to give the information commissioner the power to force the government to release information in a timely fashion.

Secrecy and patronage prevail in Harper’s Ottawa.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

Published Oct. 19, 2009, by Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

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