Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Attack-TV evidence of Harper's tin ear

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The plot for Fox News North, the tag applied to Quebecor's new Sun Media news channel, was hatched at a lunch Prime Minister Stephen Harper had with Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes in New York on March 30, 2009, according to The Canadian Press.

Australian media billionaire Murdoch owns Fox News; Ailes, a brass-knuckle Republican strategist, is its president.

Ailes authored the infamous Willie Horton ads that destroyed Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. Described by fellow Bush aide Lee Atwater as having "two speeds -- attack and destroy," Ailes once told a Time reporter: "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it." As a producer for Rush Limbaugh's short-lived TV show, Ailes was fond of calling Bill Clinton "the hippie president" and lashing out at "liberal bigots."

The lunch was not on any public itinerary released by the PMO and only came to light through a search of former president George Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer's mandatory disclosures with the U.S. Justice Department, CP's Bruce Cheadle reported June 14.

Also at the lunch was Harper's communications director, Kory Teneycke, whose prior jobs were with the Mike Harris Conservatives in Ontario, the Reform Party and the Saskatchewan Party. He left the PMO a year ago to accept a contract with Quebecor to explore a Fox News-type channel for Canada. Teneycke currently directs the political coverage offered by Sun Media, the second largest newspaper chain in the country.

He told CP the Quebecor venture was not discussed at the New York lunch. And all Harper's current communications director, Dimitri Soudas, would say about the meeting was that "the prime minister meets with a wide range of people."

The Harper-Murdoch-Ailes lunch and the putative right-wing political attack news channel is more evidence, as if Canadians need any, of the Harper Conservatives' determination to be the northern branch plant of today's Republican Party -- bruisingly partisan, all the time.

They don't accept that this is why they can't budge their polling numbers above the low thirties. Politics this raw is foreign to Canadians and rubs them the wrong way. We like peace, order and good government, not daily shouting matches.

The Conservatives have a permanent tin ear to Canadian political structures and sensibilities. The longer Harper is prime minister, the more he demonstrates that he either doesn't understand, or is contemptuous of, parliamentary government.

He operates as though he is the U.S. president and Parliament is the separate U.S. Congress. He works around, not with, Parliament. He ignores, scorns or shuts it down whenever it gets in his way.

He pursues ways of making it dysfunctional, as in his 100-page memo to MPs on how to disrupt parliamentary committees and his recent refusal to allow political staff to obey summonses to answer questions at committees. He consults his political opponents rarely and spurns them routinely. When he is rebuked by parliamentary officers, he disparages and ignores them.

The penultimate indication that Harper doesn't understand the parliamentary system came in his comment that "losers don't get to form coalitions." Several commentators had a field day pointing out that two of Harper's fastest political friends -- current conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former conservative Australian prime minister John Howard -- both took office with less support than their leftist rivals by forming coalitions with other right-of-centre parties.

Howard took power in 1998 with only 34 per cent of the vote, well behind the winning Australian Labour Party with 40 per cent, by forming a coalition with the National Party of Australia, who captured just 5.29 per cent of the vote.

Harper isn't alone in not fathoming Parliament because of his preferences for American forms.

Former Conservative strategist Tom Flanagan argues in a recent column that the Liberals and NDP could only form a coalition after the next election if they win an absolute majority of seats between the two of them. A plurality of seats over the Conservatives wouldn't be enough, Flanagan claims, because they would still have to involve the Bloc Québécois in governing.

That's not accurate. The Bloc could vote with the two parties to bring down the Conservatives; or it could abstain. And, unless the Conservatives themselves were prepared to partner with the Bloc -- as Harper was in 2004 -- the Governor General could call on the Liberals and NDP alone to form a government.

After four years in office, it's time Harper and his Conservatives accept they aren't in the U.S., respect Canadian values and govern Canada according to Canadian institutions, forms and traditions.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2010 A10

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