Tuesday, June 8, 2010
The politics of bluster
The Conservative government is on a tear again: lashing out at easy targets like elderly prisoners, truculently defending a staggering $1-billion price tag for G8/G20 summit security and dispatching John Baird to shout down legitimate questions about the Jaffer affair at a Commons committee.
And they are getting away with it thanks to a weak and divided opposition and a disengaged public. In fact, Baird -- bombastic, insincere and unserious -- was just anointed Parliamentarian of the Year by his peers in the annual Maclean's magazine poll. This illustrates perfectly how cynical politics has become.
But, while all politicians are implicated, the Conservatives are especially good at the politics of bluster; arguably they have become what they most despise (the arrogant and unaccountable Chrétien Liberals), only at greater volume. When operatives in the Harper PMO see "bridge," they think "bomb." When anyone raises objections to their plans -- however mild and reasonable -- they are instantly vilified. Values are mutable; losers don't get to form coalitions; name-calling is used to drown out doubts.
Despite this, Liberal MP Mark Holland was brave enough to wonder aloud about the point of depriving older prisoners of their pensions, observing, correctly, that "this government has a tendency to try to play games with crime." He was predictably accused by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley of "caring more" about prisoners than taxpayers or victims of crime. Yet, he has a point. No one wants Clifford Olson -- the example invariably cited -- collecting $1,100 a month in pension benefits, but Olson is hardly the typical inmate. What about the other 400 affected?
Losing pensions will be further punishment, but to what end? Many -- poor and under-skilled -- will be less able to afford life after release. I guess we should feel good about that. The government isn't pretending this latest tough-on-crime measure will be a deterrent; a cracked-out, 25-year-old gang member is hardly going to hesitate before pulling the trigger because he risks losing his pension.
The move would save taxpayers an estimated $2 million a year, but, if money is the issue, why does Justice Minister Rob Nicholson seem so sanguine about the $2.1 million a previous government paid Brian Mulroney after the former prime minister successfully sued for defamation -- before anyone knew about those cash payments from Karlheinz Schreiber? Why so scrupulous about recouping lost millions from faceless convicts and so forgiving towards an old colleague?
As time passes, such contradictions pile up. Harper, erstwhile champion of Senate reform, appoints a man who contributed handsomely to his leadership campaigns, and to the Conservative party, to the Upper Chamber. Hamilton businessman David Braley may be a talented addition, but isn't that how the Liberals always justified their patronage picks?
As for Baird's deliberately disruptive performance at committee this week -- insisting loudly on the rules, while breaking them himself -- it perversely reinforces suspicions that he, and the government, have something to hide. Rahim Jaffer may not have won any contracts, but his insider status seemingly helped him with access, just as it did in the old days of Liberal cronyism.
In another forgotten corner, the government's tentative agreement to allow outside scrutiny of those Afghan detainee documents appears to be unravelling, although Conservatives aren't expected to pull the plug until after the G8/G20 meetings.
But the greatest long-running fiction is that Conservatives are offering fiscally responsible government. Harper frequently celebrates Canada's well-regulated banking system (as he did in London on Thursday) and the sound economic footing of pre-recession days without mentioning that both are legacies of previous Liberal governments.
The Conservative stimulus program and resultant $56-billion deficit were necessary, but the spending hasn't stopped there. Along with the $1-billion summit boondoggle, the expensive Oliphant inquiry and who knows how many self-promoting ad campaigns, there are plans to spend billions more upgrading fighter planes, buying ships and building prisons -- while respected aid agencies (Canadian Council for International Cooperation is the latest) are denied their annual pittances for unspecified ideological crimes.
In a trenchant analysis of his former employer, Calgary academic Tom Flanagan charts Harper's gradual and complete takeover of the Conservative brand and the era of the permanent campaign. After so many years of constant campaigning, Flanagan writes, "federal politicians are like child soldiers in a war-torn African country: All they can do is fire their AK-47s." He doesn't add that Conservatives usually shoot first.
To be fair, they are not responsible for every sparrow that falls any more than the entire Chrétien government was "corrupt" because of the petty thievery of some Quebec officials. But fair isn't the point, balance isn't the goal and John Baird is Parliamentarian of the Year.
Prisoners deserve to receive pensions. It would help them to be more financially prepared and stable when they are released and this is positive.