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Can Canada’s Conservatives Learn from Their Mistakes?
Source: windsorstar.com
Source Date: Sunday, December 23, 2012
Focus: Information Access, Government Portal, Citizens’ Service Delivery, E-Government
Country: Canada
Created: Dec 24, 2012

Stephen Harper, like Margaret Thatcher before him, is not for turning.

Indeed, the Prime Minister seems to take quiet delight in quashing the bouts of cabinet-shuffle speculation that periodically arise in Ottawa. He did so last summer, when a major shuffle was widely expected within his own ranks. He did so again last week, telling TVA in a year-end interview that he plans no cabinet-level changes now, preferring instead to focus on the 2013 budget. Delaying until summer would be in character for Harper, and also has an internal logic: By then he’ll be building the team he’ll take into the next election in 2015.

Yet it is clear, and has been for weeks, that this government urgently needs a refresh. The evidence has been building since September. It reached a crescendo two weeks ago with the Conservatives’ messy scrapping of their plan to sole-source a purchase of 65 F-35 Lightning fighter-bombers for the Royal Canadian Air Force. That came on the heels of the Nexen decision, by which the government green-lighted the takeover of Calgary-based Nexen Inc. by China state-owned CNOOC, for $15.1-billion, but “slammed the door” on similar deals in future. The Tories appear to believe their Nexen compromise was, politically at least, a win: That remains to be seen.

The hardest knock of all against the Tories, however, and the one that cuts deepest, is simply that they’ve forgotten how to listen. Their opponents will say they never knew how to begin with. That is untrue. If the Conservatives had a single secret weapon over the past seven years, beyond their extraordinary fundraising network, it was their ear. They had an unerring sense of what, when all is said and done, Canadians want.

In the past year, however, and especially since the spring, the Tories have stumbled from one deadfall trap to the next – with they themselves doing the digging. They consider their two omnibus bills in 2012 to be triumphs of efficient government: Doing the job Canadians elected them to do. From a Conservative standpoint, that is to re-structure every aspect of the economy, and the government’s relationship with it, in light of what is most efficient. Only this approach, the thinking goes, can prepare Canada for the challenges of the 21st Century.

It’s an argument worth making: The Conservatives’ problem, in a nutshell, is that they’ve stopped making it. Since last winter, when Harper made his famous speech in Davos, the government has fallen into a pattern of simply acting, rather than persuading or even communicating. There is no attempt to debate or discuss: The government announces its intentions and then moves ahead, come hell or high water. The opposition, even the government’s own MPs, are spectators. It’s as though Harper has determined his reforms will be controversial, no matter what: So get them done quickly, smashing all opposition aside. Then, in the final two years of the mandate, try to patch things up with the electorate.

If that is indeed the plan, how would he go about it?

Step one would be to put himself back in front of Canadians, making the case consistently in a way that does not cast him as someone who only cares about people to the extent they contribute to GDP. Harper has allowed himself, since his triumph of May 2, 2011, to fall into a pattern of speaking only about economics. The post-Nexen-decision press conference was the most time he’s spent with reporters in months. He needs to talk about other things, in a way that demonstrates he shares Canadians’ broader concerns. He needs to make himself more habitually accessible to the media.

Step two would be to upgrade the quality of the cabinet. There are the obvious problems – Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, long rumoured to be headed for a judgeship in Manitoba; Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who must at some point assume responsibility for the F-35 mess. There the uneven performers – Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz come to mind – who are overdue for a change.

More to the point, Harper has half a dozen or so bright, seasoned and youngish MPs still on his back benches – among them James Rajotte, Pierre Poilievre, Michelle Rempel, Kellie Leitch and Candice Bergen – who are clearly cabinet material. He has some mid-level ministers now – Rona Ambrose and Diane Finley come to mind – who have handled difficult files without self-destructing, who could be promoted.

The bottom line, though, is that even a summer shuffle won’t be enough, on its own. The Harper government needs a new approach – more accountable, more engaged, more flexible, and more honest. The hope, for Conservative supporters, has to be that the PM and his team learn from their mistakes, and adjust.

If they cannot or will not do that, then they – and all of Parliament, if not the country – have a long 24 months ahead.

(By Michael Den Tandt)
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