Realists and idealists and a bag of hammers
CBC News Online | June 13, 2006Between what is ideal in politics and what the insiders would call realistic, there is a profound and ugly chasm, as Stephen Harper is about to find out. Or perhaps he already has.
Think back to the waning weeks of Jean Chrétien's government, when the former prime minister introduced legislation to limit drastically the amount of donations to political parties. The idealists among Chrétien's Liberal supporters were delighted; the realists were appalled.
So appalled were the realists that the president of the Liberal party at the time, Stephen LeDrew, carved himself a little niche in the history books by publicly describing the legislation as "dumb as a bag of hammers."
The legislation was a total surprise to Chrétien's Liberal supporters, and most political observers were decidedly cynical in their view of the prime minister. Chrétien had done nothing about election financing for 10 years and then played the role of idealist so that he would get the credit and his rival and successor Paul Martin would have the burden of having to fight an election under the strict new rules.
Chrétien had lowered the maximum allowable donation to a political party or a candidate to $5,000. Under the new Conservative governmentís accountability act, the maximum allowable donation to party or individual will be just $1,000. Talk about a bag of hammers!
The last of the big-time money-raisers
The inevitable contrast is with Paul Martin. In his campaign for the Liberal leadership in 2003 Martin raised $12 million. Most of the donations were for $1,000, but there were an impressive number of $100,000 cheques. If Martin were campaigning for the leadership under Stephen Harperís rules he might conclude that he had inadvertently ended up contesting the presidency of a poor house.
Not surprisingly the Liberals believe they are particularly disadvantaged by the new rules because the Conservatives have always been able to raise smaller amounts from larger numbers of people. So the Conservatives start with an advantage.
After the new Harper legislation is passed there will be a total ban on donations from corporations, trade unions and associations. That will particularly hurt the Liberals who have always been able to rely on their special relationship with the business community.
The difference in the two parties was illustrated by the Globe and Mail, which reported that in the first quarter of this year the Conservatives had raised $5.4 million from 37,391 donors. In contrast the Liberals raised $1.3 million from 6,493 donors. Small wonder that the Liberals are squawking.
But political donations are just one area in which the Harper government seems destined to achieve something approaching a real revolution in Canadian public life. Stephen Harper campaigned on a promise to clean up government and that appears to be his mission.
Itís all part of cleaning up government
Because the impulse for clean government flows from the sponsorship scandal in Quebec, it is no wonder that the accountability act is particularly stringent in its guidelines for the relationship between lobbyists and government.
But if Jean Chrétien had to bear the accusation that his legislation was as dumb as a bag of hammers, Stephen Harper may have to do the same for his accountability act.
Early in the life of the new government it was announced that cabinet ministers, their top staff and other senior public servants will be prevented from registering as lobbyists or from lobbying the government for five years after they leave the government.
There have been renewed grumblings because the new rule will apparently also include those who worked on the transition team that smoothed the way for the Harper government to take over power after the election.
Elizabeth Roscoe, a Conservative who worked with the transition team for less than three weeks subsequently registered as a lobbyist, only to discover that would not be permitted. If she had known that, she said, she would never have volunteered for the transition team.
Just to make sure that nobody is left out, the business community is grumbling about provisions of the accountability act that would require lobbyists who talk with senior public servants to register the date and the specific subject of discussions, and to identify the public servants by name.
Lobbyists are afraid that such a registry would reveal corporate secrets and would put the reporting lobbyists and their companies at a disadvantage.
About Harperís accountability legislation there can really be no big surprise. For a year before the January election he pummeled the Liberals every day for the crime and corruption of the sponsorship scandal. Cleaning up Ottawa was the centrepiece of his election campaign.
The custom of the past has always been that prime ministers and party leaders mediate wisely between the claims of the realists and the idealists. That is the way leaders preserve a measure of civil unity among their supporters.
However, on the basis of his few months as prime minister, Harper seems less inclined to mediate than decide. And in the argument over accountability and whether the Conservative government should be idealistic or realistic, the suspicion is that Harper will be very much the idealist. And he will tell them where to put their bag of hammers.