Connect to share and comment

Harper's hard week

Prime Minister Stephen Harper suffers from domestic gaffes and from supporting Obama on Afghanistan. Provincial budgets spill red ink, even in oil-soaked Alberta. There's a bizarre cross-border airplane chase. And the Genie goes to ... Passchendaele!

Top news: Imagine the discomfort of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the eve of the NATO summit last week, when he was arguing that Canada’s European NATO allies should send more combat troops to Afghanistan — against the backdrop of news that the country was officially sanctioning fundamentalist misogyny.


As Harper was preparing to ask for reinforcements, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the new law (although he hasn’t yet officially promulgated it by publishing it in the nation’s official gazette). Among other things, it denies a Shia woman’s right to refuse sex with her husband.  The law remains hung up on a technicality, but Harper made clear to Karzai that the world was watching and didn’t like what it was seeing from the government it was propping up.


Karzai’s timing couldn’t have been worse, as it gave reluctant NATO countries the political cover they needed to balk at sending in combat forces. Instead, the U.S., Canada and Britain — which have sustained the vast majority of casualties — were given a commitment of another 5,000 troops largely to train Afghan forces and help secure the upcoming elections.


The Karzai government’s move prompted a harsh reaction in Canada, where the  government had to fend off opposition calls, backed by public opinion, for pulling troops out before the legislated 2011 pull-out.


Domestic politics posed challenges for Harper over the past week as well. In a sense, his government was struck by friendly fire and almost simultaneously suffered a self-inflicted wound. The first came from Ian Brodie, Harper’s former chief of staff. Brodie admitted publicly that Harper, an economist by training, knew that cutting the unpopular Goods and Services Tax was bad public policy but he did so anyway to win office in 2006. The admission further undermines the efforts of the governing conservatives to portray Harper as a principled leader who puts good policy ahead of partisanship.


As for the self-inflicted wound: Harper’s staff tried to claim that former prime minister Brian Mulroney, the only conservative leader in nearly a century to win back-to-back majority governments, was no longer a party member. Regardless of whether it was true, the slight reopened a long-standing rift within the party.


Mulroney is the subject of a public inquiry over allegations that he took money from disgraced lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber before he left office in 1992. While Mulroney mentored Harper before the 2006 election, the two men no longer speak. But Mulroney still has a loyal following among so-called “red Tories,” the moderate conservative voters who are not fans of Harper’s more ideological bent.


The rift threatens to break apart the fragile coalition that was built when the former Reform Party, renamed the Canadian Alliance, merged with the Progressive Conservatives in late 2003. Sensing blood, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff called on Mulroney supporters to test drive the Liberals, at least until Harper is gone.


Money: The recent bull-market rally was welcome relief for shareholders on the Toronto Stock Exchange, but most Canadian companies remain caught in the financial doldrums waiting for signs of life from the U.S. economy. 


In the meantime, with the federal budget having been handed down in January, it’s now up to the provinces to deliver the services. In Alberta, where deficits were outlawed a few years back, a projected $12 billion budget surplus has evaporated, and the province is facing its first budget shortfall in 16 years. The staggering collapse of energy prices, leading to lower royalty revenues in the oil-rich province, is the main culprit. But the sudden turn from boom to bust, and the tens of thousands of workers who moved to the province over the past decade (fueling an overheated real estate market) have laid waste to the government’s claims of an “Alberta Advantage.” That turned out to be little more than the province’s strategy to keep taxes low and pay the ballooning tab for health care and other social programs with royalty income.


At the other end of the spectrum, Ontario has only distant memories of surpluses, and recently set out a budget with a record $108.9 billion in spending and a record $14.1 billion deficit. About a quarter of the total spending will be on labor-intensive infrastructure projects aimed at improving roads connecting communities decimated by the waves of factory and auto plant closures.


Elsewhere: Despite the G20 meetings, the NATO summit and the shenanigans on Parliament Hill, not all of the news was political. There was also a bizarre cross-border airplane chase, a strange court ruling that challenged parents' right to ground their children, and the gripping tale of a family’s agonizing battle with officials to have a Toronto hospital transplant the heart of their dying baby, Kaylee, to save another’s life, only to have Kaylee then cling to life.


Meanwhile, the Academy of Canadian Cinema handed out its annual Genie Awards last week and the best picture was a powerful war flick "Passchendaele." Set in the trenches of France in World War I, the movie was a big budget production, at least by Canadian standards. It took advantage of the sudden dearth of Hollywood productions, which used to come north to benefit from the favorable exchange rate to make movies more cheaply. The Canadian and U.S. dollars traded near par in much of 2007 and 2008, idling many production facilities. "Passchendaele" proved the exception and was rewarded for it.