Lofty ideas might crash and burn

Don’t expect Stephen Harper to go to his knees and beg forgiveness for the F-35 scandal; he has no knees. However, this might work out for us anyway.

Let’s take a moment to imagine the day that Stephen Harper admits defeat on the F-35 jets. He cancels the order, fires Peter MacKay, and calls an election, saying, “I’m sorry we lied. We purposely misled Canadians on the cost of these jets, knowingly omitting ten billion dollars in operational costs to make this huge expenditure more palatable to a country experiencing massive cuts to every public department. We screwed up, and we want to give you another shot to pick the right party for the job.”

Wouldn’t that be a great day? Sure, if it were even a little bit possible.

First of all, the Harper government will never admit wrongdoing; that would be political suicide. Second, even if by some miracle they did admit having fudged the numbers, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Paul Martin’s Liberals were brought down by a vote of no confidence in 2006 on a similar (well, not similar – it was only $100m; but that aside, somewhat similar) scandal. But the only way to bring down a government on a vote of no confidence is to have at least as many opposition MPs as there are government MPs. And that is not the case: the Conservatives have a majority. There will be no vote.

The most we can expect in terms of “making it right” is a few rolling, likely innocent, bureaucrat heads. We won’t see Peter MacKay sent out to pasture, nor will we see a solemn apology from the prime minister.

The lies and cost overruns notwithstanding, there is one other thing we can hope for from the government: we can hope that they take this scandal as an opportunity to re-evaluate the F-35 purchase. Once they have a scapegoat on whom to lay all the blame for the clumsy way in which this has been handled, the government will be free to take a second look at the jets and say, publicly, that they might not be our best choice.

Time to pull the 'chute on the F-35s?

Of course we need planes. We have an air force in order to defend our sovereignty, to participate in peacekeeping missions, and to support NATO missions overseas. Are single-engine stealth fighter-bombers the best choice for that? Absolutely not. They are awesome in a little-boy ‘pew pew pew’ sense, but in a boring, cost-benefit ratio sort of way, they are a massive waste of money. One suggestion that has been made is the upgraded model of what we already have, the dual-engine F-18 fighters. They have more range (to better patrol the arctic) and our pilots, mechanics, and other support staff are already trained on them. We already know how to get parts for them, and our equipment is designed around them.

The F-35 scandal will not bring down the government. Just like the Afghan detainees scandal, the robocalls scandal, or the general contempt of parliament, this issue will not cripple the government. They are un-crippleable. However, it might give them, and by extension us, another shot at making a good decision on how to defend our airspace.

Reform Cabinet for Canadians

March 29, 2012 in the Martlet

The week before last, Environment Minister Peter Kent went on record in support of changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, a piece of legislation that falls under the jurisdiction of his office. The proposed changes will gut the effectiveness of the Act to protect fish habitat, begging the question: who does Peter Kent work for?

Peter Kent comes from an illustrious background: he is a member of the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame. He made significant contributions to Canadian journalism and received numerous awards for his work, including four Emmys. Then he became a politician.

One of Kent’s first statements as Environment Minister, on January 6, 2011, was that “it is not our intention to discourage development” of the oilsands. He continues to assert that the project has no effect on the Athabasca River, despite numerous independent and government studies suggesting otherwise, including a “secret” presentation made to his office last year. And just this month, the Honourable Peter Kent threw his support behind the government’s plan to redefine an important piece of legislation, discontinuing federal protection of fish habitat.

This, coming from any other MP — even another minister such as Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — would make sense. Their jobs, after all, are not described as “protecting the environment, [and] conserving the country’s natural heritage” as is Kent’s on his departmental website. Protecting the environment and conserving the country’s natural heritage is Peter Kent’s responsibility as Environment Minister and those are the first words used to describe the work of Environment Canada, one third of his portfolio.

Furthermore, Environment Canada’s mandate is to “preserve and enhance the quality of the natural environment, including water, air, soil, flora and fauna; conserve Canada’s renewable resources; conserve and protect Canada’s water resources,” and more along the same lines, which in relation to Kent’s recent comments would be an entertaining irony if not for its consequences.

It is true that Enbridge and its partners in the Northern Gateway pipeline will benefit greatly from a reduced regulatory burden, but this should not be the concern of the Minister of the Environment.

Of course, we take it for granted that a cabinet minister will bow to pressure from the PMO. After all, he or she is only there by the grace of the prime minister, and can be relieved of his or her duties at the first sign of disobedience.

This is a problem. Canadians should be able to trust that cabinet ministers will do their best to uphold the mandates of their respective ministries; we should not expect them to use their position of honour and influence to bring credence to whatever cause the PMO wishes to promote.

Why not take that a step further, and expect that our Ministers not only act in the best interest of their mandates, but that they are qualified to do so? As a former journalist, Peter Kent is not qualified to make decisions about the environment. Similarly, Defense Minister Peter MacKay never served in the military, nor did he work in any defense-related position, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was an accident and injury lawyer before entering politics. There is certainly money in that, but chasing ambulances is not a financial strategy that works for most Canadians.

These backgrounds will not come as a surprise to those who follow politics; most of us don’t expect our representatives to be anything but politicians acting in our best interests. However, when given a mandate that involves complex issues such as environmental protection, Canadians should be able to expect that this representative is the best person for the job (and not just a nodding head, rewarded by the PM for outstanding head-nodding), and that this person fight for the department to which he or she has been appointed. Our Environment Minister should do his best to protect the environment and not the Prime Minister’s short-sighted, potentially catastrophic push for energy development at any cost.

Editorial #11 – Not my governor

Bottom of the ninth, and it’s not looking good for Stephen and his little league team. “Time out!” screams little Stephen, and runs home to mommy, who quickly cancels the game. Stephen sips his hot chocolate, and hopes everyone forgets how the game was going; after all, he won’t need to step on the field again until after the excitement of the Olympics.

Now, do we blame little Stephen for his selfishness and immaturity? Of course not, he’s a five year-old with the power to call a reset whenever things look bleak for his team. Given that this is the second time he’s used this trick, maybe it’s time we thought about whether his mommy should be a part of the game at all.Governor General Michaelle Jean is an unelected official, with great power to step in the way of the democratic process.

Last year this irony was taken to a new level when Harper, moaning about the “undemocratic” coalition government, used her ancient, throwback power to put an end to this challenge to his power. This year he has abused her power once again when things looked dark, wasting months of work – not to mention the actual time off, effectively adding another month to Christmas. It is time to reevaluate the role of the Governor General in our government.

First of all, let’s look at the origins of the position. In the colonial years, this position was one of true power, as a political position governing the colonies in the interests of the homeland. Upon constitution, however, the position was essentially stripped of its inherent political power over Canadian affairs, and remains today as a figurehead position representing our devotion to our roots. The Governor General today is responsible for many very important tasks – such as appointing the Prime Minister – except that she is more or less expected to just nod her head at the leader of the party with the most seats. Ditto for most of her responsibilities: the Governor General is expected to simply blend in and sign her name on the dotted line.

This is where we encounter a problem. If Stephen Harper wants to prorogue parliament, Michaelle Jean has the legal power to say no, but only in the same way as she has the power to appoint Keith Publicover as Prime Minister. Realistically, she can’t say no to Harper, and realistically, being a politician, he will use any chance he has to get out of trouble. This leaves Canadian parliamentary process at the mercy of Stephen Harper’s nerves.

It is important to have someone in a position of power like hers, with the legal authority to stand up to abuses of power and shut down parliament when things get out of hand. Such power, however, should not be so easily handed over to the Prime Minister, and should always be in the hands of someone democratically elected by Canadians – not the Queen’s representative, whose significance to Canadians is on the same level as one side of a loonie. Let her take care of the awards galas and speaking tours, and leave the politics up to the people.