Harper government has too much on its plate for a minority

Instead of picking their fights, the Tories have overloaded Parliament

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The Gazette, Monday, November 20, 2006

As Parliament resumes today, here's a timely reminder for the Harper government: It's the minority, stupid.

It's a rule of thumb in a minority House that the government fights the fights it can win. The Harper government is spread way too thin, fighting too many battles on too many difficult fronts.

There's Afghanistan, where despite a month-long lull in the fighting, the voters remain deeply divided about Canada's offensive mission against the Taliban insurgency. The mission is particularly unpopular in Quebec, one of the reasons Harper's poll numbers here have melted like a snow bank in spring.

Harper's unqualified support for Israel in its summer war with Hezbollah also dragged him down in Quebec, with its important Lebanese community.

On another foreign-policy front, Harper took on the emerging economic juggernaut of China last week, saying he won't "sell out to the almighty dollar" when it comes to discussing human rights, the reason the Chinese at first wouldn't give him a meeting with President Hu Jintao on the margins of the Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam.

"I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values," he said en route to Hanoi. Well, yeah, but as a trading nation, Canada also buys and sells billions of dollars of goods from and to China, and trade is an important Canadian value. The Chinese, who after all invented diplomacy, ran Harper in circles about whether they'd give him a meeting with President Hu.

Elsewhere during the fall session, the Harper government annoyed two core Conservative constituencies - Bay St. and seniors - when it broke its promise not to interfere with corporations converting to income trusts. Although it was the right decision in terms of the national interest, the Harper brand took a hit on his breaking his word. Just as was the case last year under the Liberals, the issue with investors isn't taxes on distributions - individuals pay them on other income, it's the losses in the value of their portfolios. At one point last week, Canaccord Capital calculated the income-trust sector had lost $32 billion in market value since Finance Minster Jim Flaherty made his trick-or-treat announcement on Halloween. Ouch.

Then there's climate change, and the constant barrage of ridicule and scorn the Tories and Environment Minister Rona Ambrose have endured over the Clean Air Act as a substitute for the unachievable targets of Kyoto. After bungling the communications message, the Conservatives were actually rescued by Jack Layton and his request to refer the bill to a special committee, a proposal Harper accepted on the spot because it enables him to reposition the environment as a big-tent issue.

Then, in the middle of a $13- billion surplus, the government announced $1 billion in program spending cuts, which seemed calculated to annoy every special-interest group in Ottawa, as well as cultural groups and museums in small towns across the country. Let's not forget the promised debate and resolution about whether to reopen the same sex marriage issue. Sure, let's revisit that one.

That should be more than enough battles for a government to fight in a majority house, let alone in a minority one.

But, no, Justice Minister Vic Teows has stirred a legal hornet's nest with his decision to give police forces a seat on regional advisory committees that make recommendations on appointments to the federal lower and appellate courts across the country.

This has drawn fire from the Canadian Bar Association, the Criminal Lawyers Association, the Canadian Judicial Council and, not least, from the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin, who has written a letter condemning the lack of consultation by the minister.

The government also intends to drop the "highly recommended" category of nominees to the bench, while retaining the "recommended" and "not recommended" ratings of judicial applicants. This opens the door to a deeper, but possibly less talented, pool of prospective judges.

Lawyers and judges might themselves constitute interest groups, just as the police do. But they also constitute the legal establishment. And it's impossible to see what the Conservatives hope to gain by taking on the entire Canadian legal establishment, up to and including the Supreme Court.

The Conservatives are spending political capital they don't have. If they're not careful, they'll soon find themselves in a deficit with the voters. It's the minority, stupid.

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