Harper needs velvet glove, steel hand

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Sun Media, Friday, April 30, 2010

Here’s the thing between Stephen Harper and Canadians. The voters see him as a competent prime minister, but they have trust issues with him and they don’t mind at all if he’s cut down to size.

Competence is measured by empirical evidence, and the Harper government has run a number of major files well, from the GM bailout to the H1N1 rollout, from Haitian relief to managing the economy through recession to recovery.

Trust is harder to measure, it’s much more of a gut feeling, and it certainly isn’t built by putting the prime minister in a sweater.

Harper wins on competence, while the jury remains out on trust.

So along comes the speaker, Peter Milliken, with a ruling on parliamentary privilege, which will test Harper’s mettle as well as his tactical instincts on both. The substance of the government’s response speaks to competence. The tone goes to trust. Both are core attributes in maintaining voters’ confidence.

The speaker found that Parliament is entitled to have all documents pertaining to the issue of Afghan detainees, but gave the government a grace period of two weeks to find a Canadian compromise—how to make them available without jeopardizing national security or the safety of our troops on the ground.

It took Milliken 45 minutes to read his 6,000-word ruling on the opposition parties’ request that the government be found in contempt of Parliament. But it comes down to a single sentence: “In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and in fact an obligation.”

So, the prerogatives of the Crown, but the sovereignty of the people. Though his ruling was very nuanced and balanced, imploring the government and opposition to find a solution, Milliken holds the high hand.

If the parties are unable to agree by a week from Tuesday, then Milliken could permit a contempt motion and that could trigger a question of confidence or a resolution the government could interpret as one. Either one could result in an election no one wants. Unless Harper has a hidden agenda and is plotting an election on the eve of hosting the G8 and G20 summits in late June. Nah!

How the parties find their way through this is a moment for grown-ups, not the bumptious children of the parliamentary gong show. Lives could depend on it, the lives of Canadians in uniform in a very inhospitable land. The Afghan prisoner file has virtually no resonance outside Ottawa. For most Canadians, the Taliban are the guys trying to kill our guys with way too much success.

So the prime minister needs to find a process leading to an acceptable outcome for all parties. Naming all the opposition leaders or their surrogates to the Privy Council, giving them automatic security clearance, would be one way to do it. Then they would be on good conduct not to leak anything to the media. This is how Brian Mulroney shared information with the opposition during the first Gulf War in 1991.

As for trust, much depends on Harper’s tone, which in the House since Tuesday has been measured, restrained and appropriate, with an undercurrent that he won’t be pushed around.

There’s a saying in French: Gant de velour, main de fer. Velvet glove, steel hand.

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