David Emerson, Stephen Harper & REM

kinnon —  February 7, 2006 — 8 Comments

"It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine." (REM)*

It almost appears that with all the blogosphere and ink-stained firepower aimed at this story, that Emerson’s appointment signals the End of Conservative Integrity even before it arrived. As Charlie Brown would say, "Good Grief."

My own family was up in arms last night as they watched the news before dinner. (Why watch the news on TV, I ask when you can read it first in the blogosphere, but I digress.) They lined up with what seems to be a tsunami of integrity criticism.

You’d think the Pope came out in favour of same-sex marriage and abortion – in one day! People, we elected a politician – not a spiritual leader. Politics is pragmatic. Harper is apparently interested in what he believes is best for the country. So is Emerson. Why else would someone cross the floor to a minority-government cabinet position which promises about as much job security as a water-ski instructor in Nunavut.

SDA’s Kate is much more eloquent than I am:

I’m glad a Liberal MP crossed and I hope more of them do. David Emerson’s a big boy, he can face the deserved criticism from the electors. But should he become the first floor-crosser in modern Canadian history forced to run in a byelection just to prove a point about "Conservative principle"?

Are we nuts??

Certainly, I’d have preferred he’d gone to the back benches and earned his way into cabinet – but then, I don’t have the task of building a larger tent, quelling a persistant media theme on the "lack" of urban MP’s, balancing regional representation, and finding the experience and talent to solve long standing international trade disputes.

I expected there would be decisions made by Harper I wasn’t going to like, and I expect there to be more.

Pragmatic politics isn’t always done tastefully, and sometimes you swallow when you’d rather spit – but the parliamentary rules allowed what was done today, and as has been pointed out ad nauseum, Harper has done nothing particularly novel when compared to previous administrations.

UPDATE: Read Emerson’s response to Liberal Riding Association Critics. Read Stephen Harper’s comments on Emerson and why he asked him into the cabinet. [HT: Nealenews] And read Kate’s Continuing Comments.

Read the negative comments to my post below.

*BTW: Good Canadian that I am, and the favourite son of a Newfoundland mother, I prefer Great Big Sea’s version of the song to that of REM‘s.

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

8 responses to David Emerson, Stephen Harper & REM

  1. People jumping on the Emerson case to say floor-crossing should be banned or that MPs should have to face a bye-election in order to do so have missed the point entirely. Canadian voters shouldn’t have to ban what is a historically recognized parliamentary practice, but neither should we have to accept any fraudulent or dishonest use of their powers that our politicians get up to just because they are “allowed” to do it!

    Emerson crossed the floor to a party supported by less than one-fifth of the voters in his constituency less than two weeks ago. He can point to neither personal principle nor the will of his constituents to back up his decision. The bottom line is, he (and Harper) know that what he did directly contradicts every action and every message Emerson delivered in the process getting himself re-elected just two weeks ago, with ample reliance on donated time and funds I might add.

    We exist in a parliamentary democracy. “Floor crossing” is a legitimate part of that tradition, and there are no doubt occasions on which such an action is ethically and/or morally supportable (I leave Stronach’s actions to your own judgment.) Doing so mere hours after an election, to a party with no legitimacy in your constituency, is not justifiable or supportable. Suggesting that this conduct is OK sets our standards of honesty and ethics so low that we might as well not bother demanding anything from our politicians at all.

    Suppose you just got married, and on your wedding night, your partner said she was leaving you for the front desk clerk who appeared to be making more money than you. If you can imagine how that would feel, you’d have an inkling of how it feels to live in Vancouver-Kingsway and just having voted for Liberal David Emerson. Don’t expect too many of his constituents to wish him the best.

    Frankly, this is scandal.

  2. The only argument in defense of Emerson crossing the floor is that politics and principle don’t belong together.

    How do you say the things Emerson has said about the Conservatives and then join them? Either he didn’t mean them, which makes me distrust him, or he meant them, which makes me distrust him now he’s switched.

    How does Harper say that switching causes cynicism, and that he’s going to run differently, and then do this?

    It’s not the worst thing that could happen but it surely is a case of new guy, just the same as the old guy.

  3. Awum,
    He can point to neither personal principle nor the will of his constituents to back up his decision.” I’m going to assume that Emerson got into politics to affect change, so perhaps it was indeed “personal principle” that caused him to cross the floor. If his skills (both from his time as a Liberal Minister and as former CEO of Canfor) can bring resolution to the Softwood Lumber issue with the U.S. then his choice will be good for the country and especially, British Columbia.

    Assuming you’re in the Vancouver-Kingsway riding, you will probably have the ability to “kick the bum” out (if he dares to run in that riding again) or you will be able to elect a new Liberal of your choice – in the not too distant future.

    I was a wide-eyed idealist when I worked as Stewart Smith’s chauffeur in the 1977 election. Smith was leader of the Ontario Liberals running against Bill Davis’ Big Blue Machine. I was a card-carrying Liberal in those days. This was in the summer before my final year at Ryerson. I was heading for a career in journalism. What I saw on that campaign from “professional journalists” made me sick to my stomache – and insured I would never seek a career in that field.

    Stewart was a highly principled politician who left a lucrative psychiatric practise to seek a MPP’s seat, the leadership of his party and then the Premiership of Ontario. Unfortunately, he was surrounded by Pols in his party, the PCs and the media. When it comes to politics, I am a cynic. (I also played a rather senior role in Joe Volpe’s first campaign – which he lost.)

    I do believe that “politics and principal” belong together – they’ve just been apart so long they don’t know how to dance. I will give both Harper and Emerson the benefit of the doubt. I believe they made this move in what they see as the best interest of the country – although, perhaps with two left feet. (Make that two right feet, eh!)

    And, as I said on your blog this action does not compare with Gomery, Chretien’s Grande-Mere Hotel, the self-entitled Dingwall, SeaKing helos, the Gun Registery et al. This issue, as much of a PR nightmare as it is, is not as Talking Heads might say, “Same as it ever was.”

    But I could be wrong.

  4. CuriosityKilledTheCat February 7, 2006 at 6:24 pm

    Harper hubris, or Does Harper have a tin ear?

    The conventional wisdom now seems to be that Stephen Harper is a political genius, of the same ilk as Napoleon, or Churchill, or – pick your favourite. But what if Harper’s cabinet-making is not a politically astute move by at all, but simply a sign that he has a political tin ear?

    After all, sometimes the past is predicator of the future: in 2004 he misread the electorate with some of his comments about the Liberals – especially Martin – and his premature triumph speeches about the West taking over. And in Parliament he has sounded a bit screechy and overly self-righteous. Then there are those stories about him being a one-man-band, who does not need a mentor because, one observer says he said, he never met anyone as smart as he is ….

    So, perhaps this was just Harper being Harper, and marching to his own discordant band?

    If so, wait until the second Act: gonna be a lot of fun for Libs and NDP, and a lot of buyer’s remorse by many voters in Ontario ….

    And meanwhile, the Bloc will crouch in the wings, nursing its wounds, and waiting for the right time to take Harper down – when he is under a cloud of intolerance or stupidity, but before he cements himself into Quebec as Mulroney Junior. Best get rid of him soon, before he becomes a real threat to the Bloc …

    So wait for the right moment, and the ganging up by the three parties who each have good reasons for taking him out of his new digs at Sussex, and who – between them – hold the balance of power.

    After all, Harper arranged a mob-lynching of Martin with all three parties deciding to put in the knife on that particular Ides of May. Having shown the way, I wonder if Harper fears that this time the other three parties will cooperate to bring him down?

    Better than even chance, I think; and probably before summer ends, too…..

    Maybe Harper should let those renovations take place at Sussex Drive before he moves in: might save him having to move twice, eh?

  5. CKTC,
    I’ll grant you that Harper may have a mild Tin Ear – but you’re dreaming in technicolour if you think the Libs will be back in power any time soon. There are many more Liberal scandals to be revealed with the CPC in power.

    That is probably why there are no A-list candidates who want to run for Liberal party leadership. Stephen will have the pleasure of 24 Sussex for a number of years – perhaps never with a majority, however. We shall see.

  6. Well, Bill, I’m not a Vancouver-Kingsway voter myself, but I know a few who are. They are depressed, angry, cynical, some (sadly) may never vote again. They knew that they were voting for a Liberal opposition member. Emerson lead them to believe that this was so, took their money, accepted their volunteer time and welcomed their votes. He openly courted those who opposed the Conservatives. So yes, there’s a bum they’d like to kick, they just hate having to wait more than a couple of weeks to do so (you see the symmetry there?)

    True, Emerson may feel he can contribute more to the Country as a Minister, though I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m generally wary of self-serving explanations for behaviour. The bigger problem I have with that argument is this: If an MP’s obligation to remain true to his word to his constituents carries little weight, why bother pulling elected Ministers from among “representative” MPs at all?

    Canadians in general may not raise the level of stink I feel this warrants; c’est la vie. Just don’t underestimate the personal level on which this has affected Vancouver-Kingsway voters. “Disenfranchised” may be a little strong, but its a word they are getting comfortable with out there.

    I’m just simple folk myself; If you act like a Jerk, you’re a Jerk. If we re-elect you, then we deserve to be ruled by Jerks. Call it a Jerk-ocracy. Sigh…

  7. Awum,
    You’re painting the Vancouver-Kingsway a little like jilted high school paramours – “some (sadly) may never vote again.” Of course, we are talking about Lotusland, as Dr. Foth was wont to call it.

    Love the Jerk-ocracy line. But I would say we’ve just come out of 12 years of one.

    And never doubt the short term memory of voters. It certainly worked for le petit gars de Shawinigan, though not so well for his successor.

  8. CuriosityKilledTheCat February 8, 2006 at 11:41 am

    Harper’s One-Man-Band, and Pretzel Tories.

    So, a little time has passed, and Harper’s daring moves to impress the electorate with his political acumen have now sunk in a bit. Reaction across the country to his cabinet appointments – and abandonment of principles espoused during the election – have varied from sheer disbelief, to shock, to amusement. Never has a Canadian politician fallen so far so fast. Usually it takes time for power to corrupt, but Mr. Harper is a man in a hurry.

    Many Tories have had to swallow their tongues and bend themselves into pretzels defending the indefensible. Some MPs have said they fear going back to their ridings because they will have to explain to their supporters how the Harper crew did a sudden U-turn on the accountability issue, which, after all, was the Tory strong point in the election. Harper ran as Mr. Clean, and painted Martin as Mr. Corruption at every opportunity he had.

    Even the rightwing press is stunned and disappointed.

    Examples of press reaction:

    The Vancouver Sun:

    “”I expected some of the superficial criticism I’ve seen,” Mr. Harper told The Vancouver Sun in an interview. “But I think once people sit back and reflect, they’ll understand that this is in the best interests of not just British Columbia but frankly of good government.” Mr. Harper referred to his statements on Monday, when he said he recruited Mr. Emerson to Cabinet to give Vancouver — which didn’t elect a Tory MP in five city ridings — a voice in Cabinet. He used the same rationale to explain why he appointed Tory national campaign co-chairman Michael Fortier, a Montreal businessman, to the Senate and as Minister of Public Works. Montreal, like Vancouver, did not elect a government MP. “I think I was clear what I did and why I did it,” Mr. Harper said yesterday.

    The Calgary Sun – Roy Clancy:

    “Stephen Harper must be breathing a sigh of relief today. Just minutes after being sworn in as prime minister, he relieved himself of one of the biggest burdens he had carried into the job. No longer must he live up to the impossible standard of political purity and ethical integrity saddled upon him by a naive electorate. …But as widespread moans of anger illustrate, many Canadians took Harper seriously when he promised Monday to “begin a new chapter for Canada.” No wonder they were disappointed when they learned within moments that this new chapter looks a lot like the old one. …Harper’s pragmatic moves may not have violated the letter of his promises to change the way government is run, but they shattered the spirit. …. Monday’s manoeuvres quickly lowered the bar when it comes to public expectations of this new regime.“

    The Calgary Sun – Rick Bell:

    “See the Tories wriggle. Wriggle, Tories, wriggle. Ah yes, one party’s turncoat is another party’s principled politician. No anger now. No demands to step down and face the voters now. No nasty name-calling now. No sympathy for the poor electors of the riding of the quisling now. … The trouble with talking about the moral high ground is you actually have to walk on it or, like the kid standing by the broken window after throwing the snowball, insist without shame you’ve done nothing wrong. … So the rationalizations flow, the lame explanations are exhaled into the hot air and only those who have drunk the Conservative Kool-Aid will follow as good old ideological ants.”

    So, what lessons can be taken from Harper’s first exercise of Prime Ministerial power? Here are a few for you to ponder:

    • Just as it is unfair to accuse every Republican of having the same moral vacuity that President Bush has displayed, so too is it unfair to say that all Conservatives – and all voters who voted for the Tories – lack good moral and political judgment. It is very clear that there are a lot of people who voted Tory because they sincerely believed that it was time for the Liberals to mend their house, and for another party to bring in some anti-corruption measures. These people still have high standards; they are as bewildered by the events of this week as others are.

    • Harper obviously believes he is above trifling things like having to take the feelings of others into consideration. This exercise of Prime Ministerial power shows that he will think things through – apparently mostly on his own – and then decide on the best way forward. If he explains his thought process, it is obvious to him that voters will then understand why he is right, and fall into line. There is a word for this: paternalism. Harper shows clear signs of seeing himself as the Big Wise Daddy of Canadian politics. His use of the word “superficial” to describe the reaction of others to his crass abandonment of some of the major planks of his election platform illustrates this very clearly.

    • Harper is focused on winning a majority in the next election, to happen within 18 months. Everything he will do or say is geared to that. If lesser mortals within his own party do not understand this, that is their problem. They must suck it up and stay in line. Big Daddy knows best.

    • Harper does not believe in a democratic party for the Tory government. It is his way or the highway (witness Stronach). This is perhaps the most worrisome aspect for many Tories: did they realize they were electing a dictator rather than the leader of a parliamentary party fashioned along the lines of a Westminster democracy? How many more decisions will be made by The Leader, and rammed down the throats of the caucus? And how can Canadians expect such decisions to be the best, if they are not tested by vigorous debate within the governing party before being made?

    If Harper continues in the same vein for the next 12 months, expect him to join the ranks of the Clarks, Campbells and Martins as a short-lived blip on the Canadian political firmament.


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