Bernier affair raises doubts about Harper's competence

Canadians are asking why the PM appointed Bernier in the first place

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The sacking of Maxime Bernier as foreign-affairs minister has obviously been a sensational political event - a flameout and a femme fatale.

But Bernier's fall from grace, and the obviously inappropriate company he was keeping was essentially a one-week story, one that raises eyebrows more than shifting votes. The opposition parties will keep it going in the public-security committee next week, especially if they put Julie Couillard on the stand, but no public-policy purpose will be served by voyeurism.

The deeper and more enduring problem for Prime Minister Stephen Harper is that it raises questions about his own judgment, and the core attribute of the competence of his government.

In other words, you might not like Harper, but you probably think he's a pretty smart guy, smart enough to run the country.

As for competence, it's as important to the Conservative brand as compassion is to the Liberals.

Back when Allan Gregg was polling for Brian Mulroney, he used to say it didn't matter if the Tories were seen as heartless, as long as they were perceived as competent.

And if suddenly it seems that Harper isn't so smart, and the Conservatives look as if they don't know what they're doing, then there's no reason to keep them in office, and every reason to throw them out.

There was a moment like that last week, a week from hell for Harper, on his whirlwind tour of western European capitals. As they were flying out of Rome, an aide read too much into a wire story the Italians might reconsider the non-combat caveats around their role with NATO forces in Afghanistan, only to retract the spin.

If there's one place where the Canadian government can't afford to look incompetent, it's on the world stage. Canada, always striving to be taken seriously in international affairs, doesn't have the margin to look foolish.

The entire trip was misconceived and, in the event of Bernier's resignation, misbegotten. No one should try to do two transAtlantic flights, and four European capitals, in three days. Paris, Bonn, Rome and London, and the PM didn't even sleep in Paris or London. Jet lag does funny things to people. They make tired mistakes, as Harper's press aide did in Italy.

Given the furor unleashed by Bernier's resignation, Harper might as well have stayed at home. The story followed him to all four capitals, and was even front-page news in the local papers (they had art - pictures of an ex-motorcycle chick with cleavage will do that.) His meeting with Sarko at the Elysée? No video. His speech on the environment in Bonn? Never happened. Tea with the Queen? Bet you didn't even know he was at Buckingham Palace.

The question around Harper's own judgment is how he could have put Bernier in Foreign Affairs in the first place, when he had no understanding of Canada's role in the world. This is good stuff in the world of Monday-morning quarterbacking, but at the time of last summer's cabinet shuffle, Bernier was a coming man, a rising star. And at a time when a Quebec regiment, the Van Doos, was shipping out to Afghanistan, Harper wanted a salesman for the mission on French-language television.

No one ever imagined then that Julie Couillard rather than Bernier's two small daughters would step out of the limo at Rideau Hall, or that Bernier would prove so reckless, inattentive and self-destructive at Foreign Affairs. No one imagined him not doing his homework, let alone leaving it behind at Julie's place. And this, a month after they had supposedly broken up.

It is Harper is who left to clean up Bernier's mess, and to answer the question of why he stayed with Bernier as long as he did. The answer is that after Bernier's musing about ousting the governor of Khandahar, Harper had virtually decided to move him in a summer cabinet shuffle. It was the forgotten NATO summit briefing book that finally forced the PM's hand.

Bernier's departure has also left a gaping hole in representation in cabinet from Quebec - the very province that is supposed to boost Harper to majority status in the next election. He is now down to four Quebec ministers - Lawrence Cannon, Josée Verner, Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Michael Fortier. There is no "ministrable" from the Quebec back bench to replace Bernier. The relative strength of the PM might be underscoring the comparative weakness of his front bench.

And then there's the economy, the ultimate test of competence. While most of the leading indicators remain positive, GDP growth declined by 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and two quarters of negative growth would technically make recession, a magic word for any opposition party. Harper had better hope for an uptick in the second quarter.

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