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Harper learns he can't control chaos

[PoliticsWatch posted 4:50 p.m. May 12, 2006]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper ends a tough week speaking in Toronto. 

OTTAWA  — Earlier this year, when a leaked e-mail revealed the PMO was putting cabinet ministers on a short leash to keep the government on message, many in Ottawa suggested the PMO was being too paranoid and controlling. 
 
This week, the reason for Prime Minister Stephen  Harper's short leash was on full display as a relatively low-profile backbench MP captured headlines for comments he made about the Supreme Court and a leak of details from the auditor general's upcoming report was front page news. 

If Tory strategists hold a Friday meeting to review how they perform each week, it would be hard for them to conclude, "We had a good week. We upset both the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the auditor general."

The well-run ship that was the Conservative government showed holes and leaks this week for the first time in its relatively short three month life. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Tory MP Maurice Vellacott issued a lengthy statement and announced somewhere on page two that he was stepping down as head of the aboriginal affairs committee. 

Vellacott really had no choice. 

Over the weekend, Vellacott was among a number of Conservative MPs, including Harper himself, who dropped by a weekend conference for a conservative group known as the Civitas Society in Kanata.

While most people in Kanata over the weekend were concerned about the fate of the Ottawa Senators, people like Vellacott at the Civitas Society were holed up in hotel conference rooms discussing issues such as property rights, the moral justification of war and judicial activism.

Civitas meetings are closed to the media and all events are off-record to allow a free and open discussion. So what Vellacott heard over the weekend is not known. 

However, it may have affected his frame of mind when he decided to talk to a CBC reporter and camera crew on assignment at the hotel where Civitas was meeting. 

"I don't think it is the role of the judge, whether left or right or conservative or whatever stripe [he] happens to be, to actually figure to play the position of God," Vellacott told the CBC.

He went on to say that chief justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin "herself said actually when they step into this role that suddenly there's some kind of mystical power that comes over them, which everything that they've ever decreed is not to be questioned."

Vellacott's statements most likely would have been greeted with applause and "hear, hear" behind the closed doors of the Civitas Society. 

The problem was McLachlin said no such thing about mystical powers. 

McLachlin did give a speech last year in which she outlined her judicial philosophy and said judges have to uphold written laws and "unwritten constitutional norms."

Not mystical powers, but definitely not in line with strict constructionism that conservatives want to see in judges. 

But Vellacott's editorial paraphrasing of McLachlin's speech was enough for the chief justice to push back and issue a statement denying she had said such a thing. 

Vellacott had forgotten about the Jan Brady "exact words" rule of politics.

At that point, Vellacott was in trouble and an apology could not save him. The PMO and other ministers quickly distanced themselves from the MP.

"The member for Saskatoon—Wanuskewin has already said that these are his own personal views and that they do not represent the position of the government," Harper said in the House on Monday. "They certainly do not represent the position of the government."

The "mystical powers" comment may not be the view of the government, but there is some support in the Conservative and Liberal caucus for the general gist of Vellacott's comments. 

In his resignation letter, Vellacott said he received "support from my caucus colleagues and my leader" as well as "expressions of encouragement from members of other parties and affirmative messages from across the country."

McLachlin's comments about unwritten norms alone would likely disqualify her for the bench under the prime minister's litmus test for the judiciary. 

Harper has said he wants a certain " judicial temperament," which is "the ability to competently and shrewdly and wisely apply the laws that are passed by the Parliament of Canada."

Nonetheless, Vellacott's comments had put the Harper government in a precarious position against the establishment in the country. 

Cable news channels appeared on the verge of becoming "All Vellacott, all the time." 

The three opposition parties were behind a motion to declare no-confidence in Vellacott as chair of the aboriginal affairs committee, spelling certain defeat and embarrassment. 

And the Canadian Bar Association demanded Harper force Vellacott to step down, saying his comments "brings the administration of justice into disrepute and seriously threatens judicial independence."

After it became evident that Vellacott would lose the vote in committee, he spoke with Conservative whip Jay Hill.  

"I told him at that point in time that it probably would be better to resign than be forced to resign," said Hill. 

Score one for the opposition. 

Even though he is not a cabinet minister, Vellacott represents the first head to roll at the hands of the opposition parties in the new Conservative government. 

However, he may not be the last. 

With the week coming to a close, Conservative MP Jason Kenney revealed in the House of Commons on Friday that the Tories were conducting an internal investigation to find out who leaked details of the Auditor General Sheila Fraser's upcoming report on the gun registry to the media. 

Fraser complained openly before a Commons about the leak on the same day National Post reporter Allan Woods published an exclusive with details about some of Fraser's damning findings. 
 
The NDP wants the RCMP to investigate, but Kenney said leaking an auditor general's report is not a criminal matter. 

"We're obviously concerned, as is the auditor general," said Kenney. "This government places a priority on confidentiality and proper management of information.   

"Any such leak of a report of a officer of Parliament is clearly unacceptable and we will make the appropriate inquiries."

Only a handful of senior officials and ministerial staff gets a sneak preview of the auditor general's reports. Kenney would not say which ministers' offices were being investigated or whether or not ministers offices are being investigated at all. 

Nonetheless, the Liberals and the NDP will likely keep this going believing they found a scandal similar to the income trust controversy that rocked the Liberals during the election campaign. 

The latest two controversies make it appear that Harper's concerns about MPs and ministers spending too much time in front of cameras and efforts to keep a tight lid on information were in fact correct. 

Had Vellacott simply walked past the CBC cameras and had someone not called Allan Woods with the goods on the gun registry then this week would have been another week of reporters talking about how bored they are with Harper's five priorities. 

But unless the PMO gives every cabinet minister, MP and senior staffer a GPS device and a baby monitor, preventing missteps such as these is not possible with hundreds of reporters and camera crews hanging around Parliament Hill. 

Harper is learning the hard way that he cannot control the chaos that is politics in Ottawa. 

He is learning that butterflies flap their wings in Brazil, not next to him in the foyer of the House of Commons with his handlers picking and selecting who gets to ask the butterfly to flap its wings. 

: Related Links

> Tory MP steps down as committee chair

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