Op-Eds - 2010

Harperland isn't such a scary place

Bob Plamondon, Ottawa Citizen 09 Oct 2010: B.7.

Lawrence Martin has a runaway bestseller on his hands with Harperland: The Politics of Control, a much talked about book that has just hit store shelves.

In the hype it would be easy to be misled into believing this book is a hatchet job on Stephen Harper. But this book does not reveal scandal, or greed, or incompetence or even economic mismanagement.

Let's be clear about the thesis of the book. In Harperland we see a litany of examples that prove power is moving away from the bureaucracy and cabinet, and toward the Prime Minister's Office.

Martin sustains his thesis with the help of a number of surprising on-the-record interviews with former confidantes of the prime minister. From the important to the mundane and sometimes ridiculous, the evidence shows that the PM has brought policy and issue management into his vortex. But let's consider a more damaging accusation than the PMO as a command centre. What if the accusation was that Harper was leading a government that lacked focus or was scatterbrained? Good or bad, if this government has an accountability agenda we are persuaded by Martin that the buck stops with the prime minister.

In Harper we see an intensely competitive party leader, one who likes to win as much as he likes to revel in his opponents' demise. Perhaps this quality comes from his lifelong interest in hockey. Or maybe Harper has read the autobiography of Jean Chretien, who used his skills as a scrapper to great effect. And so what if Harper wants to turn the Liberal party into the unnatural party of government? That's what his party elected him to do. What is most shocking about Harper's naked desire to win is that it comes from a Conservative, whose party leaders have often made losing a virtue.

The most perceptive source on Stephen Harper in Harperland is David Emerson. Emerson is not much of a partisan, having served in successive cabinets, Liberal and Conservative. Emerson supports Martin's contention that Harper is a prime minister in control. Fair enough. But the once-red-turned-blue cabinet minister also shows respect for Harper as a disciplined and focused leader; knowledgeable and well prepared with a penchant for getting things done. He has observed Harper's overt partisanship, but offers that he is always open to the opinions of others, adding as a caution that, in Harper's cabinet, you didn't say anything unless "you had something really important to say." Now that is serious revelation: a prime minister who only wants serious debate.

The subtext to Harperland is that the reshaping of the power structure in Ottawa poses dangers to Canada. The risk of such a shift is implied: a concentration of power, an inclination to secrecy.

But regardless of how decisions are made and who makes them, the country has not been denied a debate on the merits of public policy shifts -- such as on the mandatory long-form census or the long gun registry -- just because of prime ministerial involvement. Like all government actions within the boundaries of the law, it is outcomes more than process that people should care about.

Harperland is not a biography or a one-sided litany of the prime minister's flaws. For example, Martin provides a behind-the-scenes account of how Harper discarded the notes given to him by bureaucrats on the government's apology for the residential schools scandal to personally craft a heartfelt apology that captured the spirit of reconciliation.

Martin demonstrates how Harper has successfully advanced conservative causes from law and order, to a renewal of our military and a stronger presence in the North. He shows how Harper has reached out to ethnic communities and has built a strong political organization.

Frequent mention is made of Harper's good fortune, which seems to magically appear whenever the Tories are in a tight corner. But as the saying goes: the harder you work the luckier you get.

In Harperland you won't see much analysis, commentary or criticism of the government's record on the big issues. There is limited reference to the economy, government finances, the global economic crisis or international relations. What we see is a case study in how the prime minister operates: how he asserts himself and his office; and his drive to make the Conservatives a party that can win and hold office.

To the thesis of the book, the reality is that there has been a steady flow of control to the PMO since the days of Pierre Trudeau. We can also say that the shift under Harper's watch is small potatoes compared with the power grab that occurred in the late 1960s. When canvassing opinion in his cabinet and when the vote was something like 14 to two, and Trudeau was one of the two, he concluded by declaring that the nays have it.

Whether it's true or not, Harper is not the first prime minister to be accused of running a one-man government. Regardless, if he does a good job at it he will be re-elected. If not, he has no one to blame but himself.

Bob Plamondon is a public policy consultant and the author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper.

The next steps toward Macdonald Blvd.

Bob Plamondon, Ottawa Citizen 29 July 2010: A.11

Until recently I thought few Canadians cared about our past. But the response to the idea, proposed in these pages a few months ago, to rename the street in front of Parliament Hill after our first prime minister proves that our passion for Canadian history does not lurk far below the surface.

On one side of the debate are those who believe our nation's most important street should be forever linked with Sir John A. Macdonald, the man who won six of Canada's first seven elections and whose vision defines us still. In placing Macdonald firmly at the foot of Parliament Hill we encourage parliamentarians to follow his lead to sustain a grand Canada that is strong, independent, united and respectful. Former prime ministers and notable historians alike concur that Macdonald can continue to inspire us to greatness if we get to know him better.

On the other side of the debate are those who believe history should be left untouched and that the markings set forth by Colonel John By should remain as they have been for the past 185 years. More than just abiding the wishes of Colonel By, many speak about the greatness of the Duke of Wellington, who was not only a war hero and former British prime minister but the man who encouraged the use of British tax dollars to fund the construction of the Rideau Canal for military purposes when he was master-general of the ordnance.

But we have not always left our markings alone when there was a good reason to evolve. In the Oct. 20, 1903 edition of The Citizen it was reported: "The council, after some discussion, approved, almost unanimously, the proposal to change the names of Maria and Theodore streets to Laurier Avenue."

Some Councillors opposed, preferring to use numbers for street names, or because changing existing street names had the potential for confusion. But looking back, very few of us, with the possible exception of the archivist crowd, believe that City Council committed historical vandalism by casting aside the names given to these early streets. With this change, which required but one meeting of Ottawa City Council, we were given another way to keep Sir Wilfrid Laurier prominent in our hearts and minds, as he remains to this day.

Much has been made of Colonel By's decision to name Wellington Street. Renaming the road in front of the Parliament buildings would be overturning the Colonel's decision, some people argue. But By never attached Wellington's name to a road in front of the hill, because no such road existed at the time. When he created Wellington Street, the road started about where the Supreme Court buildings are now located. In the Colonel's design of Bytown, Wellington Street and Rideau Street were not joined, and were separated by military fortifications in what was then called Barracks Hill.

The critical event that defines our beloved city was the decision to make Ottawa Canada's capital, which was not in the minds of By or Wellington when the canal was conceived. The selection of Ottawa as our capital was a classic Canadian compromise, chosen primarily because of its location on the border of Canada East and Canada West, and because of Ottawa's bilingual character. And no one had more to do with choosing Ottawa as our capital than Sir John A. Macdonald.

Others in this debate acknowledge Macdonald's greatness, and agree that the Iron Duke does not belong in front of our legislative assembly. However, they want Sir George-etienne Cartier to be recognized in the renaming along with Macdonald. While Cartier was a great nation-builder and a partner to Macdonald until his death in 1873, it is time for Macdonald to be recognized for his singular contributions as prime minister, a position he occupied until his death in 1891. Other than the bridge that connects Ontario and Quebec, we would do better for both Macdonald and Cartier to honour them individually, as we have done with the Drill Hall at Cartier Square.

Macdonald remains as relevant to Canada today as he was at the time of Confederation. We get little by retaining Wellington, a man who Dominion-Historica president Andrew Cohen points out opposed democracy and responsible government for Canada. We do no dishonour to Col. By, since he did not plan for a street on Barracks Hill, which was later renamed Parliament Hill to acknowledge the transformation from military camp to the seat of government.

The street on which our leaders assemble belongs not to Col. By or the Duke of Wellington but to our founding prime minister. Let city council show the wisdom that it did in 1903.

It will not take long before Canadians recognize that a vote to celebrate our founding is also a vote for our future.

Bob Plamondon is the author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper. He manages a web site located at sirjohnamacdonald.ca.

Credit: Bob Plamondon; Citizen Special

Ottawa should kill the Canada Savings Bond; The bonds cost Ottawa millions a year to administer

Bob Plamondon, The Gazette, 15 Apr 2010: A.19.

The federal government is making noise these days about being tough on spending to balance the budget. But you have to wonder about its chances of eliminating a $56-billion deficit with an across-the-board spending freeze while it continues to fund programs that Canadians don't want.

A little-known Ernst & Young study from 2004 concluded that more than $1 billion had been poured down the drain between 1997 and 2003 to keep the Canada Savings Bond program alive. The tap is still running.

There was a time when buying CSBs was a convenient way to save money and perhaps show some patriotism. Of course the flag waving counted for only so much: In 1982 it took a 19.5-per-cent return in the first year and 10.5 per cent for the remaining six years to attract investors.

Launched in 1946, CSBs once comprised $50 billion of federal debt, about one-third of all we owed. Faced with declining interest rates in the 1990s, more attractive returns in equity markets, and the emergence of mutual funds, the CSB program began its steady march to oblivion. Valiant efforts were made to revitalize the program, such as a no-fee CSB Canada Retirement Savings Plan in 1997 and the introduction of the Canada Premium Bond in 1998. But the decline of the CSB program did not abate.

Today, at $12.5 billion, CSBs represent a paltry 2.4 per cent of federal debt.

Finance Department bureaucrats appeared to acknowledge the program's day was done when they commissioned Ernst & Young to conduct a $200,000 review in 2003. Like the coroner called in to conduct an autopsy, the official finding of death was confirmed. Not only was the program not needed to meet the financial needs of the government; it was an expensive way to raise funds and offered no social value. The competitive marketplace had rendered the CSB program virtually obsolete. E&Y concluded that, "The program is unsustainable and is costing the government more than it provides." Of the four options that were studied they issued a single recommendation: Stop issuing new bonds and run the system down and out. While the CSB was being wound down it was estimated that taxpayers would save $650 million over maintaining the status quo.

Anticipating a political backlash among a declining number of older Canadians who were invested in CSBs, E&Y noted that the government of British Columbia terminated its program with no public backlash.

When handed this report in 2004, Liberal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale was emphatic: "The option of eliminating the Canada Savings Bonds Program is not on the table as part of this review. We are looking to update and improve our retail debt strategy, not to end Canada Savings Bonds."

Not much has changed since the Tories have come to power, although they have boasted that administrative costs for the CSB program were reduced by $5 million in 2009. It's hard to say what this amount represents as a portion of total program costs since the government no longer reports on what we spend to keep the program on life support. These data are available only through an access-to-information request.

The government says it is committed to the long-term sustainability of the CSB program. However, for 2010 it is reducing the sales period from six months to two and it is not accepting new customers for the CSB Retirement Savings Plan initiative. But allaying any fears that Canadians might have about a program they neither want nor need, the government recently issued a statement that its recent changes "are a proactive step to ensure Canadians have access to the program for many years to come."

If we can't end a program that Canadians have clearly indicated they don't want and is costing us millions to keep alive, it is hopeless to expect we will ever tame the deficit through expenditure restraint. If the government is serious about respecting taxpayers then it's time it gives the CSB program its last rites.

Bob Plamondon is the author of Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics.

No offence to the Duke, but we should celebrate Macdonald's achievements by giving him pride of place in Ottawa

Ottawa Citizen, 10 May 2010: A.11.

A lover of history and guns and all things British, John Robson's recent frontal assault on Dominion-Historica president Andrew Cohen for supporting the renaming of Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill after Sir John A. Macdonald is at best entertaining, even if it misses the point ("Don't Canadianize our history," April 30).

It is evident Robson is still smarting that Lester B. Pearson ditched the Canadian Red Ensign in favour of the Maple Leaf flag in 1965. If Robson was king, such an atrocity would never have occurred. This belies the fact that, from Confederation until 1945, Canada's official flag was the Union Jack, although our troops carried the Canadian Red Ensign into Vimy and other battles to distinguish themselves from their British compatriots. Robson must be lamenting we lost the Union Jack so soon after Confederation since everything historical, in his world order, must remain untouched.

However, our beloved city was once called Bytown. York is now Toronto and Ville Marie, or Hochelaga, became Montreal. That's because we evolve when there is a good reason to do so. That markers, monuments and street names remain fixed for eternity is in itself a denial of history. What is proposed is not to replace the Wellington moniker with some modern day hero. It is not Wayne Gretzky or Terry Fox being pitched to replace Wellington; it is rather one of the Duke's contemporaries.

Robson suggests there must be some nefarious plot afoot to banish the Duke of Wellington from the face of Canada. This is nonsense. That Wellington opposed parliamentary reform, or bested the French in battle, or was loved by our ancestors, is not the point. There is no argument being made against the Duke in the renaming proposal, rather, it is that Canada's most important street should be named for Canada's most important historical figure.

It is true the Duke earned the respect and admiration of our forbearers, and contributed to the decision, for military reasons, to construct the Rideau Canal. This connection is worthy of recognition. Indeed, if the renaming proposal succeeds, we would continue with a Wellington Street in Ottawa, owing to the fact that the original street was conveniently broken into two pieces. Those who want to celebrate the Duke's birthday, or honour his great victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, can meet at any number of attractive pubs on Wellington Street in Wellington West.

But insofar as the single most important figure in Canada's design and creation, few serious historians would disagree that it's Macdonald. He led the meetings at Charlottetown and Quebec City, where our country was first conceived. He was the key architect of the British North America Act, attending to every detail in its passing. And he was chosen by Queen Victoria to serve as Canada's first prime minister, which was confirmed shortly thereafter in our first election. His vision and guiding hand moulded this nation as he steered us through a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles over most of the latter half of the 19th century as he hardened the gristle that was Canada in its early days into bone. Rather than tamper with history, as Robson suggests is the motivation, we would celebrate our most profound historical figure and the birth of Canada by recognizing Macdonald's singular achievements. And we do this, not just for a celebration but also for a purpose.

The point here is that future generations of Canadians will benefit if our parliamentarians are being constantly reminded of the greatness of Sir John's vision and the manner by which he made Canada strong, united and prosperous. Indeed, Sir John A. Macdonald can continue to educate and inspire those Canadians who take the time to know him better. Macdonald is, simply put, as relevant to Canada today as he was 143 years ago at the time of Confederation. We don't get the same payoff from the Duke of Wellington.

The proposed change is, I suspect, for an eternity. We only have one Parliament and one founding prime minister. And it is not just the address of Parliament that would change, but also, fittingly, the National Library, the Supreme Court of Canada, the National Archives and the Bank of Canada. Our most important street, and the institutions that reside therein, would be connected to our most important prime minister.

Macdonald, as Robson notes, took his British and Scottish heritage seriously. This is true, although he did not oppose reform, modernization or responsible government for Canada. His vision was to build an independent nation, which by necessity required the strength and active support of the mighty British Empire to keep us out of the hands of those lusty Americans with their Manifest Destiny. For our independence, we should think of Macdonald every time we cross the street to walk on the grounds of Parliament Hill.

Bob Plamondon is the author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper. He manages a web site located at www.sirjohnamacdonald.ca

Wellington's time is up; The Duke can't compare to Canada's first prime minister -- let's rename the street in front of Parliament after John A. Macdonald

Bob Plamondon, Ottawa Citizen, 23 Feb 2010: A.13.

The Citizen's lead editorial of Feb. 16 ("Nation builders") makes a good point: "Canadians can't be interested in their history if they aren't told about it. And one of the ways we get Canadians' attention is by recognizing historic sites (by) erecting monuments and other markers."

Here is an idea for a marker: Let's rename the boulevard in front of the Parliament Buildings in honour of our first prime minister: Sir John A. Macdonald.

Of course, fans of the Duke of Wellington, for which the street that faces Parliament is named, may take exception. But who is more relevant to Canada: our greatest prime minister, or the military leader who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo? (So there is no offence to the Duke and his accomplishments, which included a stint as British prime minister, we could stick with Wellington for the street between Island Park Drive and Booth Street where the road naturally breaks).

Compared with his American counterpart, George Washington, Macdonald gets short shrift in Ottawa. Ever notice the monument in Washington, D.C. or the name of the capital itself?

There is a modest statue of Macdonald on Parliament Hill; plus he gets half-billing along with Sir George-Etienne Cartier on Ottawa's international airport -- but most of us simply call it the Ottawa airport. As to the Macdonald-Cartier freeway, most of us call it simply the 401. And how many among us can say for certain which bridge is named for Macdonald and Cartier? Casting Macdonald and Cartier as equal partners is peculiar anyway, given that Cartier was popularly elected only once as a federal MP from Quebec and died in 1873, while Macdonald ruled Canada for 18 years.

Macdonald's Ottawa home, and place of his death, overlooking the Ottawa River on Sussex Drive, known as Earnscliffe, is a national heritage site. But it is closed to the public, serving instead as the home of the British high commissioner. But don't blame the Brits for denying us entry: they have lovingly restored, maintained, and celebrated Sir John at Earnscliffe after the Canadian government neglected to act when the property became available for sale in 1930.

The Elgin Street pub, Sir John A., is another quaint tribute to our first prime minister, but it hardly ranks as a site of historic significance.

Despite the protests that would be waged by the planners at city hall over the name change, there is a strong argument to be made that renaming the segment in question would reduce confusion. Wellington Street is anything but continuous, with many breaks and twists over its distance.

Sir John is deserving of much more than the naming of the street where our parliamentarians meet. But in an era of restraint it would be less costly than building a much-needed museum of Canadian history.

Macdonald's vision and guiding hand moulded this nation and steered us through a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles over most of the latter half of the 19th century. He thwarted American manifest destiny by cobbling together British colonies in North America, which he bound in common purpose through an improbable inter-continental railroad. And he succeeded in uniting English and French in a way that no subsequent prime minister has been able to match. The apt title of Richard's Gwyn's latest biography on Macdonald says it all: The Man Who Made Us.

We could use more reminders of his vision for Canada and his greatness.

Bob Plamondon is the author of Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics.