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Saturday
Apr242010

The Tipping Point

 

All MPs will have to deal with the fallout from the Jaffer affair. Tom Lukiwski had it right went at the end of the committee hearing he asked Jaffer, “Do you believe and understand that your actions have tarnished the reputation of politicians from all parties -- do you get that?"

If the public didn’t already have enough reasons to turn their backs on Parliament and our MPs, this sad episode has given them one more.

For years Canadians have watched the slow decline of Parliament. Today, MPs are known more for the trouble they cause in Question Period, than the good work they do in Committee. Shouting across the aisle at your opponents gets you the media clip. A careful well thought out question does not.

This was not always the case. Joe Clark in his prime was one of the best questioners in the House. His questions were carefully worded, politely delivered and often deadly as what he asked today was often a set up for where he was taking the issue two or three days later. Clark also had another rule: Never ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Even after his return to Parliament in 1998, it was interesting to watch how quiet the House would become when Clark stood to ask a question. MPs wanted to know what he had to say. Today the noise is so loud with both sides heckling the other that it is a wonder anyone knows what the question was about. MPs treat unproven allegations in the media as fact and reputations get smeared daily, all under the legal protection of House immunity. MPs questions are often just fishing expeditions hoping that a minister or Parliamentary Secretary will slip up and provide the questioner with some information. That won’t happen very often with Harper’s well rehearsed team.

On the government side of course the mantra is: this is Question Period, not Answer Period.

Parliamentary decay hits all aspects of Parliament. Gone are they days when an MP such as Don Blenkarn, to name a Conservative example, who as Chair of the Finance Committee, could hold his own government to account and produce reports that were respected, if not always liked by the powers to be.

Over the length of their careers, MPs are rarely kept on any one committee, thus never building up a true expertise in a subject. When key witnesses are before a committee, the party sends in seasoned attack dogs and pulls MPs with true subject knowledge out of the hearing. Why, because the party wants a media hit. Other than a few reporters, who in the public pays attention to reports produced by committees today?

Everyone complains about the diminished role of MPs, all parties promise to fix things and of course they never do. It really boils down to one thing, the pursuit of power and the search for the almighty news clip.

With this comes centralized control, message control, control of committees, whipped votes and MPs of all parties meekly accepting their marching orders from their respective leader’s office.

Five Members of Parliament can begin the process of turning things around. These are the four party leaders and the Speaker. The leaders have to realize that what suits their tactical agenda today is contributing to the long term decline of Parliament and with that comes a lack of respect for our MPs and our political institutions.

Everyone acknowledges that the Speaker has a tough task, but he has rules he can enforce. The question is will he?

Sometime next week the Speaker will rule on the MPs, IE Parliament’s demand for the Afghanistan documents. It will be interesting to watch to see who comes out the winner; the Government or Parliament. Either way a tipping point for Canada’s elected representatives will have been reached.

Thursday
Apr222010

Analyzing their options

Responding to a question from the NDP which pushed for the appointment of General Leslie to head the UN Congo force, Lawrence Cannon replied:

“Canada is one of the countries asked by the UN Secretariat to consider providing a candidate for the position, and we are currently analyzing that question.” (Lawrence Cannon, Hansard, April 21, 2010)

I wonder if the analyzing will last until roughly June 23rd. Depending on which day the House shuts down for the summer, that would leave roughly 30 to 38 days left with a House Question Period. After that the MPs pack up and head back to their ridings and their local BBQ circuit.

Military contributions have a way of growing. Canadian involvement in Afghanistan started with roughly 40-50 soldiers. Today, we have been fighting there longer than we were involved in World War Two. The UN Congo force started at 5500, it is now over 20,000.

The NDP is convinced that the Congo is a peace-keeping mission and wants Canada to return to its military Boy Scout role.

“Canada has ceded its position of leadership in fighting crimes against humanity. As a country, we are now 57th in contributions to the UN peacekeeping missions. Nowhere is this absence more acute than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a place where we have repeatedly been asked to send peacekeepers. The United Nations has issued a direct appeal to Canada, asking for help in the Congo. Will the government support the request by the UN to have General Andrew Leslie lead the command of the UN mission in the Congo?”  (Paul Dewar, Hansard, April 21, 2010)

Peacekeeping? Think again, 49 countries participating, 20,573 personnel, 156 casualties. This is not a regular peace-keeping mission.

The situation in the Congo is tragic, no one can deny that. The issue boils down to what role should Canada take in the months and years ahead? It’s debatable whether it should be a military one or a humanitarian one.

Prior to any decision being made why not have a debate in the House? It can be as simple as a “Take Note” debate with no vote required. At the very least Canadians would learn where each party stands on the issue.  The government would have the advice of the other parties to consider while still retaining the flexability to make it's own decision. This way all parties would be on the public record.

It will be interesting to see how this unfolds and if a decision comes after the House shuts down for the summer.

 

Wednesday
Apr212010

Check Lists

Media reports today point to a blunder at DND that would cost taxpayers $515,000 plus.

Essentially the story is based on concerns raised in the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report which was released on April 14, 2010. Both the article and the report certainly offer some  interesting reading.

The full report can be found here:

http://www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=4414398&Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=40&Ses=3

Essentially DND went ahead and build a key NORAD building in North Bay without doing even the most basic security checks on the workers. Net result was $515,000 spent for an additional security system. This system costs an average of $84,000 a year to run.

The second item in the report refers to blueprints found in the garbage besides a building on Bank St. in Ottawa. These blueprints were for the new headquarters for one of our special forces units. Once again, no one classified these documents as “secret” or even “classified” so they were simply thrown out by the contractor when the work was done. Aren’t we lucky the person who found them didn’t try to sell them on Ebay?

The Public Accounts Committee is not made up of voracious MP attack dogs. It tends to conduct its business in a quiet methodical way. It is therefore interesting that they would flag some of the testimony that was presented to them. It is even more interesting that the Deputy Minister at DND had to follow-up with a letter to the committee saying he “assured the Committee that there was no intention to mislead.” (Public Accounts Report, 14 April 2010)

That makes one wonder what was going on here?

This report also tells us that 99% of the contracts that DND issues through its crown corporation supplier, do not have a security check list requirement. Admittedly there may be quite a few that don’t need one, but these two?

The department that has been criticized for years for being to security conscious and for over classifying documents didn’t see fit to give a security classification to a key NORAD defence building and a key Special Forces building? Very strange.

This is a department that lives by checklists. Many of their routine daily tasks have check lists. Would they allow a fighter pilot to take off without following his checklist? Certainly not. But they don’t supply or follow a security check list for the construction of two important buildings?

“The Deputy Minister acknowledged that this approach to the NORAD complex was inappropriate and a Security Requirements Checklist should have been completed before the contract was tendered.” (Public Accounts Report, 14 April 2010)

So we know mistakes were made and of course the taxpayer pays. We can only hope that DND procedures have been tightened up. But what about the people who didn’t think these checklists were necessary? Were they reprimanded, promoted? We will never know of course. As taxpayers we just keep paying.

Tuesday
Apr202010

The Governor General’s Safari

Governor General Michaelle Jean is off on an African tour of some 8 days. For what purpose?

It certainly serves someone’s agenda to have her highlighting African problems at this time. As mentioned yesterday, is someone trying to sway public opinion before a decision on Canada’s participation in the Congo mission is made? And what is this media tour costing Canadians at a time of restraint?

You may recall Adriene Clarkson’s $5 million polar tour in 2004. Perhaps Rideau Hall will tell us what this tour is costing too? The cost comes out of a budget, therefore before leaving on this tour; Rideau Hall had to cost it. Let us see the numbers now and not six months from now after she has been replaced.

We know from media reports that she is tying up the Canadian Forces Airbus on this journey. I recall from my days in Opposition Research that a figure of $7500 to 10,000 and hour to operate an aircraft of that size would not be out of the norm. That Airbus seats 194 passengers (DND web site). According to Rideau Hall’s media release the Governor General has nine guests called delegates on this trip. Even allowing for a few media types and other staff on board that means this plane is flying virtually empty.

One of the purposes of the trip is to promote journalism in these four African countries. We know this because Rideau Hall sent out a press release to tell us so. Yet over the eight day period the media are not permitted at some 12 events and allowed only a photo op at six events and at two others it is still to be discussed.

On Wednesday the 14th there was one event, essentially her arrival in Senegal.  

On Thursday the 15th   there are eight events with government officials and only one community level event at a day care facility.

Friday the 16th, sees six events which would include three events that with a stretch could be said to be at the community level IE a university speech.

On Saturday the 17, 4 events two with people at the local level.

Sunday the 18th, four events including her departure from Senegal and arrival in the Congo. One event with representatives of Congolese society might with a bit of imagination be called a community level event.

Monday the 19th sees six events with only one at the community level when she visits a clinic.

Tuesday the 20th, six events, one at a hospital to highlight sexual violence against women.

Wednesday the 21st has seven events of which one was an event on reconciliation in Rwanda.

Thursday the 22nd, seven events, of which three are outside of government officialdom.

Friday the 23rd, five events all with officials.

Saturday the 24th, four events all of which can be considered community or people related.

To sum of the visit, eight days of travel of which there are 17 meetings or events that involve the local people and 41 events with government officials.

I am sure these official events accomplish quite a lot of good; after all, the Governor General is an intelligent and charming person. But what purpose has this trip served other than to allow plenty of media discussion and file footage of troubles in Africa? Would these African countries struggling to move away from their own colonial past appreciate speeches and lectures from some one representing Canada’s colonial past? Would her presence convince the leader of the Congo of his errant ways? Not likely.

As a lame duck Governor General in the last few months of her term, did she need to go to Africa? Why not stay in Canada and use these few months to reinforce and highlight issues here such as health and poverty and educational needs in our First Nations communities? Why not concentrate on the homeless or poverty in our inner cities?

The Governor General didn’t just wake up one morning and say lets go to Africa. These trips take many months of planning. She has advisors who would recommend tours to her, there would be endless bureaucratic meetings prior to a decision being made. It would be interesting to know who recommended this trip to her? Which departments pushed for this trip at this time? Just whose agenda or game plan is this trip following? An interesting tour for sure, but the question remains why and why at this time?

Monday
Apr192010

Whose hidden agenda?

One of the interesting things about Ottawa is that things seldom happen without a reason. 

For example, over the past month, Canadians have been offered a mix of stories on the war in the Congo; a war that I would speculate few Canadians have even heard about, much less followed in detail. Yet with some 49 countries contributing troops and some 156 casualties to date, this is a major UN operation.

Canadians have been reading speculative stories about whether or not General Leslie will assume command of the UN Congo mission. Why? Who wants that story out there in the public domain?

The same holds true for the speculation that Canada might offer a surge of troops to the UN forces there. All of this painted in such a way as to show the public how badly we are needed and what a great job we will do once we have our boots on the ground in the Congo. Why do these stories seem to arrive out of the blue?

The most obvious answer is that they are in the media, because someone wants them there. The question is who? Is it the top brass at DND? Is it DFAIT? Someone is trying to shape public opinion and hoping that it will either pressure the government into making a positive decision to send troops to the Congo, or it is being done to help explain a pending government decision.

Nicely dovetailing into this is the Governor-General and guess where she is visiting? Why the Congo of course. Again with lots of media attention focused on the horrible cruelties endured by the civilian population. I won’t even speculate as to what her trip in an Airbus is costing the taxpayer in a time of economic restraint, but her trip once again focuses the attention of Canadians on a regional war that has been largely ignored in Canada

If Canada is considering a troop surge into the Congo, then let’s hope it is done rationally and after a thorough public debate.