Stephen Harper needs someone to tell him when to lighten up

The prime minister is acting like he has a majority in the Commons

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Every prime minister needs someone in his close circle, usually though not always the chief of staff, who can tell the boss when to straighten up and fly right.

For Pierre Trudeau, there was always Marc Lalonde, first in his office as principal secretary and later in the cabinet until the end of Trudeau's 15-year tenure as prime minister.

For Brian Mulroney, there was Bernard Roy, his law partner and close friend, who as his chief of staff was the only person in the Prime Minister's Office on a "tu-toyez" basis with him.

For Jean Chretien, there was his chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, whom he'd known since law school, and senior adviser Eddy Goldenberg, who was with him for 30 years.

For Paul Martin, there was Terrie O'Leary, his chief of staff at Finance, with whom he had epic shouting matches. Part of the problem with Martin's PMO was that she wasn't there to yell at him.

It is always a question, when the PM asks, "will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" of whether there is someone to step up and say, hey, give yourself a shake.

It's an indispensable role in any prime minister's office but, unfortunately, for Stephen Harper, there are few, if any, people in his office who can stand up to him.

Like all prime ministers, he lives in a bubble, behind a phalanx of security, occupying an office held in esteem bordering on awe. Like all prime ministers, he has a temper that occasionally gets the better of him, and like all PMs he's capable of outbursts he later regrets.

Harper suffered a serious breakdown of message discipline last week when his churlish behaviour in the House cancelled out the previously civil tone of this minority Parliament.

Well, it is a minority House, and Harper should anticipate the kind of partisan gang-up by the opposition parties that scuttled his nomination of former Encana CEO Gwyn Morgan to be the dollar-a-year head of the appointments commission within the PM's office. Morgan was targeted because he was the Tory bagman in Calgary (hardly heavy lifting in the oil patch) and because he said some statistically accurate but politically problematic things about the racial origins of street gangs in our cities.

Morgan might have been voted CEO of the year, but that didn't cut any ice with the NDP's Peggy Nash, a bare-knuckles politico who branded him as unqualified for the role, tainted by his perfectly legal fundraising, and disqualified by his politically incorrect remarks. Seeing it as a moment to cut Harper down a peg or two, the opposition parties teamed up to take Morgan out by a 6-5 committee vote.

Harper's response was to pick up his toys and go home. No Morgan, no appointments commission. So there. Except that by dumping it, Harper is practically inviting the opposition parties to write it back into the Accountability Act. They have the votes to do that - hey, it's a minority, prime minister, stop behaving as if it's not.

Then on the debate and vote to extend the mission in Afghanistan, Harper successfully sowed the seeds of division among the Liberals. Three-fourths of their caucus voted against a mission they had approved in government and, most disgracefully, former prime minister Paul Martin couldn't be bothered to show up to vote, when it was his government that sent our troops on their dangerous mission to Kandahar.

But then Harper rubbed it in during his speech when he said that even if the motion was defeated, the government would extend the mission by a year anyway, thereby rendering the debate and vote essentially meaningless. It's fortunate for Harper that the Liberals didn't have their wits about them to simply stand up and walk out of the House.

Harper's brinksmanship obscured the fact all parties initially agreed to the process of a one-day debate, only to go wobbly after the fact when their own backbenches revolted over it.

Harper continued his peevish behaviour on another front last week in his continuing quarrel with the press gallery over who controls the list of questioners at his news conferences, them or him. Last week, he simply left the Conservative caucus by the back door, leaving the media to stare into an empty room. This follows months of feuding over podiums, access to ministers after cabinet, and even whether notice of cabinet meetings should be given, or whether the president of Haiti is in town.

While it's true access doesn't guarantee a good story, the absence of it practically guarantees a bad one. It's a battle Harper shouldn't fight and can't win. It's almost time for a truce - the annual press party at 24 Sussex Dr. This is the event where the most hardened reporters bring their kids and moms and ask for a picture with the PM. That's part of a PM's huge home court advantage.

Someone should tell him to lighten up.

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