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Harper's caucus crisis 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:30 p.m. February 10, 2006]

OTTAWA  — "I would like to be Stephen Harper's worst nightmare … I'm going to be in his face."

Trade Minister David Emerson on election night.  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to hand a cabinet job to Liberal turncoat David Emerson and a Senate seat and cabinet job to party official Michael Fortier has become not only a public relations disaster but is creating quite a strain on his caucus. 

As many as eight MPs have either expressed reservations or openly criticized the new appointees publicly.

And on Thursday, few MPs or cabinet ministers were willing to discuss the new cabinet ministers with reporters, as they rushed past them on their way into a caucus orientation and then snuck out the back at the end of the day. 

It is the first time divisions within the normally disciplined Tory caucus have been evident since the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party united in a merger in 2003 that many expected would not be easy.

The reasoning was that the "progressives" in the Tory caucus could not get along with the "populists" and "social conservatives" in the Alliance, previously known as Reform. 

But after a leadership convention, a policy convention, a disappointing 2004 election and two years in opposition reporters in Ottawa were disappointed to find that those divisions were not creating the problems from the two factions in the party that had been anticipated.

Harper's leadership style was the subject of some grumbling, but there never was a tipping point and the Tory caucus remained largely united. 

While the Liberal caucus was leaking damaging quotes from their caucus meetings, the Tories remained disciplined. Not everyone was happy with Harper, but no one was ever in disagreement enough to the point where they saw the need to make a strategic leak. 

That changed this week after Harper made his controversial appointments. 

For the first time in recent memory details about the behind-the-scenes happenings in the Conservative caucus meeting since the election were leaked out to the Globe and Mail in a story that was published Wednesday morning.

"The caucus meeting was described as unusually quiet, with Mr. Harper doing most of the talking," the Globe reported. 

"Everybody was in shock," a western MP told the Globe. 

In two well-kept cabinet moves (that supporters are calling brilliant), Harper has done more to create division in his caucus and - based on the opinions coming out this week from Blogging Tories - the conservative movement as a whole than any differences on abortion, gay marriage, national unity -- you name it -- since the two parties merged in 2003. 

The prime minister said his thinking on this issue is to provide representation to people in Vancouver and Montreal, two of the three major metropolises where the Conservatives did not elect MPs in the election.

But critics were quick to point out that Harper did not name anyone to represent Toronto. 

Harper says his new finance minister Jim Flaherty, who represents a riding in Oshawa, would be Toronto's voice at the cabinet table. 

But then that would seem to kill the argument for the need for Vancouver to have David Emerson in cabinet, as Tory MP James Moore represents a Vancouver area riding that is much closer to Stanley Park than Flaherty's riding office is to the CN Tower.

As for Fortier, there are two Montreal-area Conservatives already in the Senate who Harper could have put in cabinet without breaking a promise to name elected senators to the upper chamber. And Fortier's Senate riding doesn't even include any part of Montreal in its boundaries.

Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert observed this week that Emerson and Fortier were likely not selected to represent constituents in those two major cities, but to represent business elites. 

Emerson is a former forestry executive with lumber giant Canfor and Fortier is a Mulroney Tory who was an executive in Montreal's financial community. 

By making these two controversial appointments, Harper has now placed a large chunk of his caucus in an untenable situation for what some see as no good reason. 

Former Reformers, who have campaigned for over two decades for an elected Senate and criticized virtually every Mulroney, Chretien and Martin Senate appointment, now have to face reporters' questions about Harper's decision. 

On Emerson, 40 Tory MPs voted in November in favour of a private members motion to examine forcing floor crossing MPs to sit as independents and run in a byelection. 

While Harper is not in favour of such legislation, there is no doubt that he is not a fan of turncoats. 

In May of last year on the day Belinda Stronach left the Tory caucus for a cabinet job, an overtly bitter Harper held a press conference on Parliament Hill where he freely took cheap shots at every opening offered. 

Maclean's columnist Paul Wells asked Harper how come the Liberals seemed to be the main beneficiaries of turncoats while the Tories always seem to be the one to be on the losing end. 

Harper said his party wouldn't go out of its way to "romance" MPs to cross the floor. 

"We are trying to create a principled party where people act in a principled way," Harper said.

"We're fairly cautious about encouraging party jumping because I think that's the kind of thing that generates cynicism and frankly when somebody jumps once you're not sure to trust them that they won't jump the next time."

But somehow on Monday, people acting in a principled way and concerns about public cynicism no longer seemed to be a priority once Harper's party got power.

Emerson did not leave the Liberal party because of any fundamental policy difference that he could explain to reporters. 

What he made clear is he left the Liberals because they were no longer in power - plain and simple. Emerson sees himself not as a politician, but as a career cabinet minister.

He even said if former prime minister Paul Martin won the election two weeks earlier he would have remained on with the Liberals. 

Harper has not taken questions since Monday and Conservative MPs who attended two caucus meetings this week are having a difficult job spinning to reporters a story that would even be hard for the partisan of Liberals to swallow.

On Tuesday, several MPs and cabinet ministers repeated similar talking points in defence of Emerson.

Conservative MP James Moore, who did not make the cabinet cut for B.C. and was one of Stronach's harshest critics post defection, was smirking as he repeated talking points about Emerson.

"All I know is that David Emerson is a very talented guy who will do good things for British Columbia," he said on more than one occasion.

But at least Moore was able to get the talking points out.

MPs gave Emerson and Fortier polite applause when Harper introduced them to caucus, but there was not a whistle, cheer or a "woo hoo" to be heard. 

Pressed by reporters after the meeting, MP Ken Epp refused to praise the new cabinet picks. 

"I'm not willing to get into the middle of this thing, you guys," he said to reporters. "You're not going to get anything out of me. I'm supportive of my leader and my team."

Tory MP Maurice Vellacott momentarily broke way from the talking points and told reporters "if you want me to be honest, I've got a bit of an uncomfortable feel about it."

Later that same day, the Canadian Press reported MP Bill Casey said he was annoyed with Emerson being in charge of the softwood lumber file because of how he has handled it while industry minister with the Liberals.

"I'm not very happy about that, no," he told a Nova Scotia radio station.

The following day, two anonymous Tory MPs spoke out to the Globe and Mail. One described the moves this way, "This is shocking. It's just unbelievable. Who was Stephen talking to? We campaigned against this kind of stuff."

By the time the Tory caucus met again on Parliament Hill on Thursday for an orientation session, a siege mentality had taken over a number of MPs, who when in opposition always seemed to have time for scrums to take a swipe at the Liberals. 

Cabinet ministers like Jay Hill and Rona Ambrose did not break stride as they walked into the meeting room, seemingly unable or unwilling to defend their embattled new colleagues. 

Ambrose is one of four Tory cabinet ministers who voted in favour of Bill C-251, a private members motion that would examine prohibiting MPs from crossing the floor. 

The others are Bev Oda, Diane Finley and Carol Skelton.

Skelton even introduced her own motion similar to C-251 last year to limit party swapping. 

But speaking with reporters Thursday, it seems such a bill was sooo 2005. 

"That was last year," Skelton said. "We talked about it and I decided not to proceed with it. It's one of those matters that is debatable."

However, not all MPs are appear willing to reverse positions, stretch their credibility or hide from reporters to defend Harper's decision to embrace Emerson. 

And this includes Senate appointee Fortier, who told CanWest that MPs who cross the floor should face voters in a byelection.

MP Myron Thompson suggested he would prefer it if Emerson resigned and ran in a byelection as a Conservative. He called it the honourable thing to do. 

Ontario MP Garth Turner was more frank and said while he didn't want to second guess Harper it was his view before Monday that those who cross the floor should resign and run in byelections and that Harper's embracing of Emerson wasn't going to change his view now. 

Late Thursday evening, Turner reported on his blog that his frankness with reporters did not sit well in a meeting he had later in the evening with Harper and other conversations with party officials. 

"This one MP came face-to-face with the party machine in a series of unhappy meetings including one tonight with the prime minister," he wrote. "I think it is now safe to say my career options within the Conservative caucus are seriously limited."

If Harper is making an example out of Turner, as Turner alleges, then it seems he is willing to butt heads with someone who has been a well-known Conservative for two decades in defence of someone who was making up Tory hidden agenda allegations last month. 

Also shocking in this whole episode this week is the incredible arrogance being exuded by Harper and his controversial cabinet ministers. 

To paraphrase John Lennon, Emerson appears to believe he is "Bigger than the Liberals."

When asked about his former Liberal riding association wanting back more than $90,000 it spent on his election campaign, Emerson said, "I think these people ought to give their head a shake and ask themselves how much of that money would have even come to the Liberal party if I hadn't been there." 

Fortier was asked by reporters if he wanted to serve in cabinet why didn't he run in the federal election. His response sounded like something that could be used in a future Liberal attack ad: "I didn't run in the election because I didn't want to run in the election." 

As for Harper, he seems to believe he is smarter than his critics on this matter and has no problem expressing this view publicly even if those critics could include some of his long-time, loyal caucus supporters. 

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun this week, Harper called the criticism "superficial." 

"But I think once people sit back and reflect, they'll understand that this is in the best interests of not just British Columbia but frankly of good government," Harper added. 

For the time being, the good of the government will have to wait.

Right now we have government on the run, with MPs being muzzled, cabinet ministers sneaking out the back door, the entire press gallery sensing fear and cabinet ministers, presumably without cellphones, canceling teleconferences because of traffic tie ups. 

Harper and his crew will have to ride this out because as it stands now the only man who can put an immediate end to this situation is David Emerson - and that is certainly Stephen Harper's worst nightmare. 

: Related Links

> Softwood may be too hot for Emerson to handle

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