The first, from Jeffrey Simpson:
"Ah, nothing like a little Conservative overkill"The second, a strong condemnation by Margaret Wente:
Accountability is the Conservative Party's trump card.
Everywhere he travels, Stephen Harper promises more accountability in Ottawa. Accountability is literally Chapter 1 of the Conservatives' "Stand up for Canada" platform.
More accountability sounds so good. Who can be against it? Certainly, the sponsorship program and the resulting Gomery inquiry pointed to mega-problems with accountability in Ottawa. And it's the perception of inadequate accountability and widespread corruption that propels the Conservatives' fortunes more than anything else.
Did the sponsorship program and the Gomery inquiry really point to systemic flaws? On the surface, yes; in practice, no. As Auditor-General Sheila Fraser said, and as Mr. Justice John Gomery explained, the problem with the sponsorship program was not the lack of rules, regulations and procedures, but that this program was deliberately placed outside them. That politically driven decision, more than anything else, explained why it misfired, not the lack of systems of accountability.
Logically, the answer to the problems that the sponsorship scandal revealed is not to bring in new rules but to ensure that all government programs follow the existing rules. But that logic would run afoul of the Conservatives' political imperative, so that, in the interests of greater accountability, the Conservatives are about to make the federal government even more administratively cumbersome.
Put another way, the federal government is already consumed -- some would say overwhelmed -- by processes and procedures. It is a vast, unwieldy bureaucracy that spends a lot of its time on co-ordination and accountability.
The volume of paper is staggering. The federal government has just been put through the wringer of changes by the Martin administration, everything from creating Service Canada (the granddaddy of all bureaucracies) to appointing 300 new auditors. But these changes pale by comparison to what the Conservatives have in mind. And if anyone who ever dealt with the government before and found it cautious, inefficient and process-driven, just wait until the Conservatives finish with it.
The Conservative overkill, in the name of accountability, envisages new institutions to watch over the other ones. There will be a director of public prosecutions, a post that even deputy leader Peter MacKay, a former prosecutor himself, wondered about.
There will also be a new procurement auditor, a public appointment commission, two new public inquiries and the possibility of a third (into polling contracts), and a new parliamentary budget office.
The Conservatives won't stop there. The following institutions will have their budgets and powers enlarged: the Auditor-General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Comptroller-General, the Information Commission, the Ethics Commissioner, the Public Service Integrity Commissioner, and the Registrar of Lobbyists.
Parliament will be reviewing prospective appointments to the Supreme Court. It will be voting in secret ballot for the Ethics Commissioner, the Auditor-General, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and the Registrar of Lobbyists.
If the secret-ballot election for the Speaker of the House of Commons is any guide, candidates for these posts can be expected to campaign privately before the vote. Is that really what we want for the Auditor-General of Canada?
Anyone who comes to work in Ottawa won't be able, after his or her career, to "lobby" the government for five years, instead of one, as now. Since lobbying can be loosely defined, that's going to be quite a deterrent to anyone who once held a prominent position in government from even dealing with the government later.
Retrospection will be the order of the day, since the Chief Electoral Officer and the Registrar of Lobbyists will be able to investigate possible violations going back a decade. Whistle-blowing will be encouraged.
There will be new Criminal Code provisions for public-sector fraud. The Information Commissioner will be able to look into the files of anyone or any groups that "spend taxpayers' money."
The Harper Conservatives view the government as a corrupt, venal, wasteful place riddled with shady deals, political favouritism, rampant conflicts of interest and posterior-protecting bureaucrats -- a view that mirrors that of the Canadian people.
That Conservative antidotes to what actually ails Ottawa will be worse than the cure is beside the political point.
It's too bad that Mr. Harper has pledged a Federal Accountability Act as his first piece of legislation. It would be much better to wait for a year, learn how government works, and then produce sensible reforms instead of gross overkill.
"Still deep blue on the inside"
No doubt you've noticed that Stephen Harper has undergone a dramatic product improvement. In version 2.0, the angry white guy has been upgraded to a mellow hockey dad. This upgrade is much more user-friendly -- so much so that Mr. Harper now handles press scrums (which he loathes) as if he's ingested high doses of Valium.
These days, he's doing a not-bad imitation of Bill Davis -- the genial, Central Canadian Red Tory who maintained his grip on power in Ontario by appearing to be both soporific and safe. "How red?" asked the Toronto Star on the weekend, preposterously suggesting that Mr. Harper might be morphing into Brampton Billy.
You can be excused for being confused. Yesterday, Harper 2.0 was schmoozing in Atlantic Canada, pretending he hasn't spent the past two decades plotting to kill off "sacred trusts" such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. ACOA, after all, stands for everything he hates -- federal subsidies directed by bureaucrats to dubious make-work projects, a disproportionate number of which wind up in the ridings of federal cabinet ministers. But now he has promised to keep ACOA -- even though ACOA is part of what he had in mind a while back when he made that gaffe about the local "culture of defeatism." Usually a gaffe is what you really think, and Mr. Harper has been apologizing for it ever since. "I said things that were wrongly interpreted and that's my fault," he said again yesterday.
So, what else does Mr. Harper really think? That it's good policy to hand out a sack of goodies to every girl and boy, especially if they live in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Nfld., or other places that might cough up a seat or three? That the GST is something other than a nakedly populist appeal for votes that would have made the obsolete Stephen Harper cringe?
I don't think so.
Mr. Harper says he has evolved, but he also says he hasn't changed his fundamental beliefs. Both of these things are true. He has evolved in his understanding of what it takes to unite the right, appeal to a broad spectrum of Canadians, and get elected. But the Red Tory gloss is nothing but political necessity.
Deep down, Mr. Harper believes what he believed when he helped found Reform in 1987. At its founding convention, he declared that "centralized handout economics" is part of the rot that's eating away at Confederation. "It is critical to understand how such centralized handout economics works," he said. "On the one hand, its inevitable drain during boom times continually hampers any attempts to put resources into the kind of productive investment which could diversify the western economy. On the other hand, the trickle-down of bureaucratic enterprise aids a peripheral region only when, like Atlantic Canada, Confederation has reduced it to a state of permanent dependency."
Make no mistake. Beneath that newly genial demeanour beats the heart of a deep-blue conservative, whose dream is to shrink the central government, dramatically reduce its role in public life, privatize as much as he can get away with, and hack away at the incomprehensible system of income transfers that sucks money from the haves to the have-nots. As for regional development programs such as ACOA -- to the guillotine! Mr. Harper is posing as an incrementalist, which, in many ways, he is. But if he has his way, his incrementalism will eventually reshape Canada as profoundly as did the creation of the welfare state.
If you think that legacy of entitlements, subsidies and big government is indeed a sacred trust, you should not vote for Mr. Harper. If you believe high taxes are fundamental to a caring society, you should not vote for him. If you don't want a reversal of aboriginal policy, don't vote for him. If you don't want 10 provinces and three territories experimenting with health care, don't vote for him.
Because Paul Martin is right. Mr. Harper could be the most radical leader in a generation. He would, so long as he can persuade the public, change the face of Canada as we know it. But whether that is good or bad is up to you.