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Harper plays for keeps

On the third anniversary of the party's last election victory, Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a Conservative Party event at the Marconi Club in London, Ont. on Friday. Mr. Harper has made no secret of his contempt for courts and judges who, in his view, have supplanted the role of Parliament, our editorial board writes.

DAVE CHIDLEY / THE CANADIAN PRESS

On the third anniversary of the party's last election victory, Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a Conservative Party event at the Marconi Club in London, Ont. on Friday. Mr. Harper has made no secret of his contempt for courts and judges who, in his view, have supplanted the role of Parliament, our editorial board writes.

The Harper government has reached a new low in its attempt to smear the reputation of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who was accused of trying to intervene inappropriately in the appointment of a new member to the court.

As law professor Gerald Heckman says on the page opposite, the Conservative government's behaviour is a brazen attack on the independence of the judiciary that cannot be tolerated.

According to national reports, the government started spreading rumours early Thursday that Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin tried to contact Prime Minister Stephen Harper to talk about his controversial appointment of Marc Nadon to the high court.

Later in the day, the office of Justice Minister Peter MacKay issued a statement saying the minister advised Mr. Harper it would be inappropriate for him to take a phone call from Justice McLachlin on the subject. The government also said the chief justice was trying to influence a matter "that is or may be before the court."

Such a discussion would have been wrong, had it happened in the manner described by the government.

Justice McLachlin's office, however, says the Prime Minister's Office has the facts wrong. She did warn Mr. MacKay and the prime minister's chief of staff about a potential problem with appointing a Federal Court judge to the Supreme Court, but the contact was made several months before Mr. Harper had appointed Justice Nadon, who was subsequently ruled ineligible to sit on the Supreme Court because he did not meet the qualifications.

The chief justice also said in a statement she had made inquiries about talking with the prime minister, but ultimately decided not to pursue it. This also occurred well before Mr. Nadon's appointment and the subsequent court challenge.

Ms. McLachlin had been consulted by a special selections committee considering a replacement for the court, but there was nothing unusual or unethical about it.

In addition to her own impeccable reputation for integrity, Justice McLachlin's version of events has the ring of truth.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said about the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

Mr. Harper has long been at odds with the Supreme Court, where the government lost several key decisions, and with the idea of "judge-made law."

The prime minister's unprecedented attack on the chief justice is clearly related to his disappointment in the court's recent ruling the government's plans to reform the Senate were unconstitutional. It was just the latest in a series of defeats for the government in the Supreme Court.

Mr. Harper has made no secret of his contempt for courts and judges who, in his view, have supplanted the role of Parliament.

Many people and institutions, including the parliamentary budget officer, the chief electoral officer and others, are on his famous "enemies list" that was leaked to the media last year. It's one of the reasons he has often been compared to Richard Nixon, a capable but flawed and paranoid leader.

It is baffling, however, why he would pick a fight with a court that is largely made up of his own appointees and is one of the few authentic checks and balances in the Canadian parliamentary tradition.

The court has made numerous landmark decisions in recent decades that have enhanced the rights of women, aboriginal people, protected citizens from arbitrary police action and given liberal and large interpretations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Mr. Harper may be trying to appeal to his Conservative base, but it will anger the moderates who have helped propel him to power.

Canadian politics has always been somewhat tepid compared to the American bloodsport, but the prime minister has demonstrated repeatedly he's no timid woodland creature when it comes to the art of political ruthlessness.

He is poorer for it, and so are Canadians.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 A14

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