Joe Clark book takes on Harper government's 'almost adolescent' tone

Saying "we talk more than we act," former prime minister Joe Clark bemoans the "almost adolescent tone" of the Harper government's foreign policy in his new book, Brian Stewart writes.

We 'talk more than we act,' Clark says in new book

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to party faithful at the Conservative convention in Calgary last week. Abroad, the tone is more hectoring, former prime minister Joe Clark says. ( Jeff McIntosh / Canadian Press)

Many Canadians have been rocked and deeply disappointed by the heavy mist of scandal that has settled over our politics.

At the national level, the ongoing Senate-PMO mess is one of those bad-news stories that are so ugly to watch, yet impossible to look away from.

What's even more unsettling is the growing unease among experienced observers that these scandals are drawing critical attention away from the far more profound problems of how we are actually governed.

These new critical voices include former Conservative prime minister and long-time external affairs minister Joe Clark as well as at least two former top bureaucrats who decry the lack of openness, policy discussion and imagination within the current federal government.

For years, complaints have been building, and we've all heard them, about the paranoid style of "court government" run by the jittery inner-office circle of Prime Minister Steven Harper.

Clark now argues in a new book How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change that Harper's heavy hand is causing a morale crisis within our foreign service that is wrecking Canada's once proud diplomatic tradition.

Clark's views should command serious respect as he was arguably the most outstanding Canadian foreign minister since the age of Lester Pearson.

Joe Clark deploring Canada's "almost adolescent tone." (CBC)

It was a post he held for almost seven years during which he benefited from a prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who devoured information, appreciated receiving strong advice and felt Canada should take lead positions on issues ranging from famine relief to the anti- apartheid campaign in Africa.

This is a very different pattern from that of the current prime minister, Clark notes. "This is a notoriously controlling prime minister who dominates and decides his government's domestic and international policy more rigorously than any of his predecessors since, at least, the Second World War."

In a recent excerpt of the new book (it comes out this week) in the Toronto Star, Clark claims that, with the exceptions of Afghanistan and trade, there has been a recurring pattern in the Harper government actions: "It is unusually assertive in its dramatic gestures and declarations," but then retreats from actions designed to actually resolve critical problems abroad.

That is why Canada has "drawn back from the fight against international poverty, peacekeeping, Kyoto, arms control, a broad presence in Africa, and Canada's customary leadership in the United Nations, Commonwealth and related multilateral institutions."

"Canada now talks more than we act, and our tone is almost adolescent … full of sound and fury," which leaves us wondering what Harper considers the purpose of foreign policy.

Even on the domestic front, Clark notes, Harper's locked-down style keeps him clear of federal-provincial conferences and close working relations with other governments.

Mind freeze

Clark is not alone in this broadside. Another warning voice in recent weeks is that of highly respected former clerk of the privy council during the Jean Chretien period, Mel Cappe.

He says the government risks running out of ideas because our know-it-all ministers don't ask for any, and public servants have been too cowed to offer them up.

This mind freeze, Cappe suggested, has plunged our public service into a deep decline with no end in sight. Ministers arrive in power with ready-made policies while public servants and their detailed studies are ignored.

"Ideology doesn't need analysis, and if you have the answers you don't need questions, and that's where we are these days," Cappe said in a recent interview with the Ottawa Citizen.

You only have to look at the strikingly flat speech from the throne last month to see how devoid of policy ideas and critical thinking this government is.

"It wasn't a speech from the throne that provided a strategic direction filled with ideas," Cappe says, but rather one that was "tinkering with minor issues.

"Our problems have never been more complicated and we have never had better analytic tools to deal with them. But the government seems to be going in the other direction."

Yet another former clerk of the privy council, Alex Himelfarb, whose seven-year term straddled the Chretien, Paul Martin and early Harper years, says the current government distrust of bureaucrats and their studies now "leads to ever more layers of costly and stifling control and to a culture of fear."

What national security?

In case you think either of these former top bureaucrats, or Clark (an unabashedly Red Tory), are being a bit partisan here, consider that two analysts for the neutral Conference of Defence Associations Institute, George Petrolekas and Ferry de Kerckhove, find Ottawa virtually devoid of national security ideas in this year's annual study "Strategic Outlook for Canada."

"Compared to the deeper reflections amongst our closest allies on national security and defence issues," the report notes, "Canada has done little more than shave ice cubes.

"There is little evidence of strategic thinking, cohesion and effect, and even less evidence of comprehensive approaches to national security."

Many reporters who've tried working with bureaucrats in recent years find a growing climate of fear, where the best brains are warned not to make waves and to avoid bad publicity at all costs.

So strong is the Ottawa paranoia that Canadian ambassadors abroad — once members of a proud, independent-minded team -- now are ordered to seek clearance from the top before speaking to local media or even civic groups.

I used to comment, seriously, that I found the Harper bureaucracy more intimidating than the one I occasionally covered in Poland before the fall of Communism.

I stopped making the comparison when I realized people were convinced I was joking. I wasn't.

This government, of course, did not invent the current power domination by the PMO.

As political scientist Donald Savoie showed in his landmark "Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability" (2008), the same concentration of power among PMO advisers ("courtiers") has been underway for decades, in both Canada and the U.K.

What seems to be accelerating in recent years, however, is government's tendency to showcase the short term rather than the distant horizon, to tackle easy fixes rather than the Big Complexities, and to operate everything within the so-called permanent election campaign (a trend fully embraced by media).

Scandals are a sign of political ill-health and always need attention.

But they should not deflect all attention away from the gritty slog of daily governance itself, a place where other, sometimes deeper perils can be taking root. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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