There's that tricky trust issue again

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Sun Media, Friday, February 18, 2011

Every time the Harper Conservatives open up a double-digit lead in the polls, they trip over their trust deficit and fall out of majority territory.

As in last year's uproars over prorogation and the long-form census. As in this week's Bev Oda imbroglio. It isn't so much about whether she altered a government document and then misled the House. It's about trust in the government and the prime minister. It's the hidden agenda thing, and it's where Harper has always been vulnerable. He wins on competence, but loses on trust.

The question isn't so much whether Oda, as minister of International Cooperation, altered a government document on her own, inserting the hand-written word "not" to change a positive recommendation for funding the faith-based Kairos aid group to a negative one. The larger issue is whether the Prime Minister's Office ordered her do it.

And the question isn't so much whether she misled the House, in telling a committee last December she didn't know who wrote the word "not" into the document. The larger issue is why the PM continues to stand behind her. She took the right decision, he said, in not wasting millions of taxpayer dollars. In other words, the end justifies the means.

Not. In the Westminster tradition, no principle is more hallowed than that of ministerial responsibility. Absent her offer to resign, she should be fired.

No one questions a minister's authority to turn down or reverse a departmental recommendation. Staff all recognize the minister's initials. The point is that altering a government document of any kind is inappropriate. Altering it to change outcomes is the sort of thing that happens in banana republics and failed states. It would be a firing offence for staff, and is simply unheard of for a minister.

On whether in her initial dissembling before a House committee she misled Parliament, the timeline is inconvenient for her to say the least. She said one thing then, and another now. In other words, she changed her story. Perhaps it was an innocent error, which she rectified this week. Or perhaps not.

Then there is question of motive, and whose fingerprints are figuratively on the document. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been quoted as saying that Kairos was de-funded because of its anti-Israeli investment policies, on alleged grounds of human-rights violations. But if that's his story, the decision not to fund the agency was taken either at Cabinet or PMO. This leads to a tick-tock, of who ordered what and when. Then you're getting into cover-up territory, a very dangerous place.

The opposition and the media smell blood in the water. In a drive-by shooting, newspapers and television outlets even ran a photo of a grim-faced Oda, in dark glasses, sneaking a smoke out behind the Centre Block.

In the House, other than apologizing for any misunderstanding on Monday, she has been mute all week. The government sent in House Leader John Baird, its best attack dog, to tough it out in question period. On Thursday, he praised Oda for "doing the right and courageous thing." In debating this is known as diversionary tactics.

The objective of the government stonewalling was to get to Friday and a week-long parliamentary recess. Maybe with the House out, the furor will die down. Then again, maybe "not."

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