OPINION

No more hissy fits: Come out and fight like a man

Having barely built a reputation as a can-do guy, he’s become the ultimate won’t-do guy

PAUL WELLS November 27 2006
OPINION

No more hissy fits: Come out and fight like a man

Having barely built a reputation as a can-do guy, he’s become the ultimate won’t-do guy

PAUL WELLS November 27 2006

No more hissy fits: Come out and fight like a man

Having barely built a reputation as a can-do guy, he’s become the ultimate won’t-do guy

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

Remember the Stephen Harper who bragged, in the middle of the last federal election, “Frankly, I can take a punch”?

Yeah, I miss that guy too. I wonder where he went. The new Stephen Harper broods over every punch. Hurls himself onto the pitch after every slight, clutching his shin like a World Cup soccer player. Has raised cancellation—of meetings, news conferences, any conceivable confrontation—to an art form. Having barely built a reputation as a can-do guy, he’s turning into the biggest won’t-do guy in Ottawa.

At the beginning of the month, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty gave a standardissue partisan speech to Liberals in which he accused Harper’s Ontario ministers— Jim Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement— of failing “to deliver fairness to Ontario.” The Harper government responded by cancelling two high-profile meetings. Ontario’s Indian affairs minister, David Ramsay, was in Ottawa hours after McGuinty’s speech, waiting in Jim Prentice’s office, when Prentice cancelled the meeting. “I felt that the political grandstanding of the premier of Ontario was irresponsible,” Prentice told the Toronto Star.

Marie Bountrogianni, Ontario’s minister of intergovernmental affairs, had her own meeting with the federal Conservatives’ Ontario caucus cancelled on two days’ notice. (Prentice’s meeting with Ramsay, at least, was rescheduled and has since taken place. One emerging characteristic of Harper’s hissy fits is that they don’t last.)

What’s funny here is that McGuinty didn’t complain publicly when Harper merely squeezed him in, soon after becoming Prime Minister, on the way to a fundraiser for Ontario Opposition Leader John Tory at which Harper called the guest of honour “Ontario’s next premier.” Harper doesn’t have a prob-

lem when Stephen Harper does politics. He just can’t take it when anyone else does.

This includes people who care about AIDS or global warming. In August, the Prime Minister cancelled a planned announcement by Health Minister Tony Clement of the Canadian government’s new plan to fight AIDS. The World AIDS Conference in Toronto was too “politicized” for an announcement about AIDS, Harper said. Clement was left feebly promising news “very soon.” That was in August. Nothing yet.

This month, Harper cancelled a trip to Finland for a Canada-EU summit. European officials, whose community encompasses half a billion people and an economy the size of

the United States, were left to amuse themselves by guessing what might have ticked Harper off. Thus the latest Ottawa game, Decode-The-Snub, becomes a global craze. Some Europeans said Harper was angry because the Kyoto accord on global warming would be on the summit agenda. Others said it was because Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, forgot to mention Canada in a speech. Who knew? One thing’s for sure: Harper’s proffered excuse—the need to be in the Commons to keep his minority government afloat—was transparent fiction. NDP Leader Jack Layton offered to “pair” MPs so Harper’s vote would not be needed in any confidence showdown. Harper turned the offer down.

He’s turning into a real shrinking violet. Never mind that he’s cancelled all Ottawa news conferences for the foreseeable future, ordering his communications director to ignore every entreaty from the press gallery executive to discuss a solution to their endless

dispute. I have never believed it was Harper’s treatment of the gallery that would get him into trouble—we have no friends, and rightly so—but the way Harper behaves, in similar manner, to less friendless interlocutors. Like provincial premiers. And friendly foreign governments. And people living with AIDS. And, would you believe, his own voter base?

To wit: whatever happened to the vote on gay marriage? Harper’s entourage made great hay out of the boss’s announcement, on the first day of the 2006 election campaign, that he’d hold a Commons vote on whether to reopen the debate on equal marriage for same-sex couples. This, they said, showed the big guy’s tough hide. First day!

No messing around! Take the hit early instead of letting a problem fester!

And now here we are, eight months after Harper’s government was sworn in, and there’s been no vote. Nor, as far as anyone can tell, is one coming. Take the hit early? Apparently that applies only to words, not action. Is Harper planning to carry the same-sex albatross around his neck through another election campaign? If not, then what is he waiting for?

Stephen Harper got this far—further than most people thought he could get—through bold action to reach out to new allies who were surprised, each time, by his willingness to build bridges. His plan is to go further still, to a majority at the next election. It is still early days. But so far his failure to match action to ambition is becoming the signal disappointment of his prime ministership. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells