Moral compass spins like chopper

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A month and a half away from their sixth anniversary in power, and seven months into their third term, the Conservatives' penchant for playing hardball and dirty tricks against opponents -- and fast and loose with the truth -- could be catching up to them.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/12/2011 (4018 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A month and a half away from their sixth anniversary in power, and seven months into their third term, the Conservatives’ penchant for playing hardball and dirty tricks against opponents — and fast and loose with the truth — could be catching up to them.

Last week, the Ottawa press gallery obtained a series of emails from the Department of National Defence flatly contradicting statements in Parliament by both Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The issue involved MacKay’s commandeering of an Armed Forces Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter to pick him up in a basket at a remote Newfoundland fishing lodge and take him to the Gander airport at a cost of $130,000 to then board a military jet to a London, Ont., ribbon-cutting ceremony in July 2010.

“I was leaving personal time to go back to work early and before doing so, took part in a search-and-rescue exercise that we had been trying to arrange for some time,” MacKay told Parliament.

CP Defence Minister Peter MacKay

“The minister was called back from vacation and used governmental aircraft only for government business and that is appropriate,” chimed in Harper.

The flight and its official explanations were so politically fraught for the military — the use of a coastal search-and-rescue helicopter as a personal ministerial taxi service — that MacKay’s demand was forwarded to Royal Canadian Air Force headquarters here in Winnipeg, where Col. Bruce Ploughman of 1 Canadian Air Division raised concerns about its optics.

Wrote Ploughman in an email: “When the guy who’s fishing at the fishing hole next to the minister sees the big yellow helicopter arrive and decides to use his cellphone to video the minister getting on board and post it on YouTube, who will be answering the mail on that one?” he asked. “If we are tasked to do this, we will of course comply.”

MacKay joins a growing list of ministers caught being more than a little economical with the truth. There was International Development Minister Bev Oda, who last spring repeatedly told Parliament she had no idea who had inserted a scribbled “not” on a signed official document cancelling government funding for a humanitarian aid agency offside with the government’s philosophy. Much later, she admitted to Parliament that she was indeed the insert’s author. But she paid no price whatsoever and continues in her portfolio to this day.

And who can forget Industry Minister Tony Clement and the scandal over the $50-million border infrastructure fund that magically transported itself some 200 kilometres north to spruce up his Parry Sound-Muskoka riding with gazebos, fancy toilets, sidewalks and parks in the run-up to an election — causing the auditor general to cite the government for misleading Parliament. Clement was then promoted to Treasury Board president.

There is no more serious parliamentary crime than misleading Parliament. According to British parliamentary tradition and practice, ministers and MPs caught doing it are cited for contempt and must resign. Not so in Canada. Canada’s adherence to the forms and structures of parliamentary democracy and accountability deteriorates visibly with each successive government and now, with each passing year.

Also with each passing year, the Conservatives’ contempt for the opposition parties and indeed, for Parliament itself, becomes more pronounced.

The party that brought Frank Luntz and Karl Rove and their black arts of the permanent campaign and the 24/7 vicious personal attack ad to Canada now has pulled yet another dirty trick from its bulging closet.

Three and a half years before the next election, the Conservatives are using a phone bank to broadcast a falsehood about former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler to his Montreal Mount Royal constituents. The calls claim Cotler is about to resign, triggering a byelection, and ask for their votes. This despite the fact Cotler has publicly, repeatedly and emphatically denied the claim. Still the campaign persists.

The Conservatives have even installed their prospective candidate, advertising him as Mount Royal’s new “go to” guy with the government.

Former Harper chief strategist Tom Flanagan dismisses this as “normal voter identification.” Government House Leader Peter Van Loan claims it’s “vital free speech” requiring legal protection.

That was the final straw for political commentator, Decima Research CEO and former Conservative strategist Bruce Anderson. In a Globe and Mail Online column Saturday, Anderson pulled no punches, calling it “grime” and “dirty tricks” and warning it “degrades democracy… This was the sound of a politician who had left home without an ethical or moral compass.”

Canadians better hope the Harperites find their moral compass soon. They — and we — have three and a half years to go.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

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