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Ignoring the issues

Ottawa Citizen
Susan Riley

According to media reports from their summer caucus meeting, Conservative MPs were back in town this week to "plot the fall agenda." No they weren't.

They were here to socialize at 24 Sussex with their spouses, get their marching orders and their talking points -- and to be reminded, should they need reminding, to shut the **** up, when asked about disquieting polls, the census, rising rates of "unreported crime", the prime minister's personality, or anything, really, outside of the perfidy of their rivals and the marvels of the Economic Action Plan.

The censorship even extends to interviews with local newspapers, as Ontario Conservative MP Patrick Brown discovered this week. In an article in the Simcoe News, that was mostly a laudatory profile of the 32-year-old MP, Brown mused about his boss.

"At first," he told the paper, "one of his weaknesses was his inability to show who he was. Brian Mulroney could give a great speech. He was telegenic. Harper has shied away from the media attention ... The longer he is in office, the more he will ease into his own skin. Anyone who has been to 24 Sussex knows he is affectionate with his kids and he's a hockey addict like the rest of us. You see it when he's coaching his son, Ben."

Strangely, this well-meaning attempt to compliment the prime minister, present him in a more human light, disappeared from the paper's website after it was distributed nationally. The editor reportedly got a call from Brown saying the interview "wasn't a representation of his thoughts on the PM."

(Huh? Perhaps Brown's offence was acknowledging that Harper might, just might, have a little image problem. Who knew?)

Not that Conservative MPs are uniquely servile. It is how our political system functions: at its heart, within the Parliamentary caucus, there is no democracy. Did Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff consult his MPs before uttering his ill-considered threat to defeat Harper last fall? No, he threw down the gauntlet before their summer caucus properly convened. Big mistake, as it turned out.

Nor, to be fair, is Harper deaf to the concerns of all his MPs. His decision to ditch the mandatory long-term census, for instance, was apparently inspired, or at least vigorously supported, by MP Maxime Bernier, cabinet's ranking libertarian, who fumed about the alleged intrusiveness of the survey when he was industry minister.

Harper's decision not to include abortion funding in his maternal health initiative was also a nod to the strong social conservative contingent within caucus, as were visible cuts to Toronto's gay pride parade. And the unflagging battle against an imaginary crime wave is an obsession for caucus's influential Stockwell Day faction, and for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

But Harper has made few concessions to that handful of ministers and MPs with more liberal social views. Heritage Minister James Moore was indirectly rebuked this week when the PMO made clear its disapproval of federal funding for a play said to be sympathetic to one of the Toronto 18 terrorists. (So far, funding hasn't been withdrawn; perhaps someone in PMO has finally learned not to poke a hornet's nest until the occupants are slumbering.)

But what is curious is not where Harper finds his inspiration and ideas -- but how slight they seem. He outlined recent achievements before the caucus meeting Thursday: a free trade deal with Colombia, a successful royal visit, reopening beef exports to China, restricting pardons for violent offenders. This is tweaking, not leading.

The same day, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty spoke at some length about the changing job market at the premiers' annual summer meeting. The day before, the Canadian Medical Association outlined five urgent fixes for an under-performing health-care system. Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae has been publicly calling for some ongoing role for Canada in Afghanistan after next summer and urging a Parliamentary debate.

And, in case no one has noticed, British Columbia is on fire and we are headed for yet another round of record high temperatures.

The Harper response? Another crackdown on lobbying -- partly a response to the Rahim Jaffer embarrassment, partly a jab at the opposition, since MPs and senators of all parties will now be covered.

Some believe the idea is to divert attention from the Tories' summer spending spree -- $16 billion for fighter jets, billions more for prisons, the $1.2 billion summit security bill -- in the face of a $49 billion deficit. Not to mention overcrowded emergency wards, a stimulus program of uncertain value, climate change and a war going badly.

But it may be simpler than that: a prime minister with modest ambitions for government, if not his country, and a caucus that has learned the best ideas are the ones the prime minister likes.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.


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