After a cynical campaign that invested more time in fear mongering over a “reckless coalition” than communicating bold policy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a commanding majority of 166 seats in the House of Commons.
In the aftermath of the May 2 election, there was a hopeful note in many newspaper op-eds and editorials that, given a strong majority mandate, perhaps Harper would temper his autocratic approach to government.
However, within weeks of pledging to be “the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us,” Harper turned the conciliatory sentiment of his election night speech into a cruel farce.
On May 18, Harper appointed the second largest cabinet in Canadian history, with 39 members and an estimated annual cost of $9 million in salaries and perks, despite his commitment to small government.
After the appointment ceremony at Rideau Hall, Harper answered a few media questions and promptly walked away. Within minutes, the prime minister’s office released a statement saying that three defeated Conservative candidates in the election had been appointed to the unelected Senate.
With Harper in hiding, Conservative lackey John Baird and Marjory LeBreton, government leader in the Senate, were forced to spin the bizarre move for the media.
It was a clear sign that the young reformer who once wrote of Canada’s “benign dictatorship” and advocated for governing coalitions, fiscal restraint, small government, accountability and Senate reform had truly, and irrevocably, lost his way.
However, there is more to the cabinet controversy than Harper’s blatant hypocrisy. Some of the new appointments seemed deliberately contrived to thumb the party’s nose at the public and the press.
Take, for example, the appointment of Tony Clement as president of the federal Treasury Board.
In a report by the Auditor General, Clement was implicated in deceiving parliament to create a $50 million slush fund for infrastructure projects in his Muskoka riding. Ironically, he is now responsible for trimming departmental spending fat in order to help balance the federal budget.
As Industry minister, Clement also led the charge in axing the long-form census and lying about the position of Statistics Canada on a voluntary long-form.
Another example is John Baird who, as government House leader in the last parliament, was fiercely partisan—a quality that the majority of Canadians, when surveyed, disdain. Baird, of course, was given a promotion to Foreign Affairs.
How will a vindictive party stalwart successfully engage in diplomacy with foreign nations and improve Canada’s international standing? Surely there must be a few Conservative MPs, equally qualified but more even-tempered, who could tackle this increasingly important portfolio.
Harper also kept some old faces in the same portfolios.
Bev Oda, who brazenly altered a Canadian International Development Agency document to deprive an aid group of $7 million against the recommendation of the public service, remains the International Co-operation minister.
I lack the space to go into the reappointment of Maxime Bernier, the rather gruesome twosome of Vic Toews (public safety) and Rob Nicholson (justice), or the move to retain a superfluous associate defence minister position for Julian Fantino.
Despite Harper’s conciliatory victory speech, the huge swings in the electoral tide and Rick Mercer’s weak slogans about change through the youth vote, things remain largely the same in Ottawa at the executive level. If anything, they are worse.
A majority mandate means that the Conservatives are no longer accountable to the House of Commons in any way that would jeopardize their narrow legislative agenda.
As outgoing Auditor General Sheila Fraser stated in a speech shortly before her departure from public life, the federal government needs to address climate change, the costs of an aging population and the plight of aboriginal peoples. In short, the government needs to widen its agenda.
That is unlikely to happen over the next four or five years. However, it will be impossible unless the national media and the public stop condescending to the NDPs young caucus and obsessing over the Liberal leadership and start holding the prime minister, and his cabinet, to account.
Ethan Cabel is a University of Winnipeg student and The Uniter’s incoming news assignment editor.
Published in Volume 65, Number 26 of The Uniter (June 2, 2011)