By Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star, February 20, 2011
Canada pays dearly whenever Stephen Harper lets his ideology, partisanship, controlling nature or stubbornness trump common sense or the advice of his ministers and civil servants.
While prime ministers have the final word, in his case it’s only his word that counts — regardless of facts or costs, in terms of our world standing or extra expenditures.
The Bev Oda scandal, as much as it is about her possible contempt of Parliament over a doctored document, is about Harper’s uncritical commitment to Israel, as have been several other controversies.
After Canada’s first-ever failure to win a seat on the Security Council, his minions blamed Europe’s 27 members for voting for Portugal. A better post-mortem came from Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League. In an interview in Cairo in November, he told me the 57-member Islamic Conference had voted as a bloc to protest Harper’s anti-Arab policies, from Lebanon to Gaza to the United Arab Emirates.
The tragic turmoil at Rights and Democracy, the Montreal-based human rights agency, was caused by Harper-appointed board members over three grants of $10,000 each to one Israeli and two Palestinian human rights groups after the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza.
The board hounded agency president Remy Beauregard. He died of a heart attack after a tumultuous meeting. The staff revolted. The board fired three managers and sent in investigators, lawyers and auditors, ostensibly to ferret out improprieties. They found nothing.
The cost of the probes: more than $1 million (about a tenth of the agency’s annual allocation of $11 million). The bill included $50,000 for board member Jacques Gauthier for services rendered. Yet he and another partisan director, Elliot Tepper, have been rewarded with reappointments.
The Oda affair entails a funding cut to Kairos, a Toronto group of 11 churches that has done development work abroad for 35 years.
It was refused $7 million not because it was not “efficient and effective,” as Oda says. In fact, civil servants had given it “a stellar evaluation,” according to Mary Corkery, executive director. They had recommended the grant.
But, as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney boasted in Israel, Kairos was cut off as part of his crackdown on anti-Semitism, implying that Kairos was anti-Semitic. He said Kairos had advocated boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. It had not. It had only called for an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands.
Kenney also cut off $1 million to the Canadian Arab Federation, whose president had criticized the Israeli attack on Gaza. In fact, he was only quoting Norman Finkelstein, a critic of Israeli policies.
Kenney went after another critic of Israel, barring British MP George Galloway from Canada. That decision was tossed out by the courts, giving Galloway a bigger stage and a megaphone to berate Canada.
The ruining of the trade and strategic relationship with the United Arab Emirates was triggered by Ottawa protecting Air Canada from competition by Emirates and Etihad airlines. But that wasn’t all.
For two years, the Harperites wouldn’t even meet the U.A.E. ambassador in Ottawa. That was the period when we were using a U.A.E. military airbase to get in and out of Afghanistan. And our wounded soldiers were being treated at a U.A.E. hospital, and flown first class on Emirates or Etihad to Canada, all free.
Now our $1.5 billion a year trade is at risk. And Canada is out at least $300 million for an alternate airbase elsewhere.
Another Harper ideological blind spot — a selective libertarian view of what government should or should not do — led to the fiasco over this year’s national census. Ignoring the advice of ministers Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement, as well as experts at Statistics Canada, Harper ordered that the compulsory quinquennial survey be made voluntary. Despite a national outcry and the resignation of the chief statistician, he wouldn’t budge. Now Ottawa is set to spend $30 million extra this summer to boost the voluntary sample only to get a less reliable national portrait, according to experts.
Yet another case of ignoring the advice of civil service is the yanking of a $3 million a year grant to the Forum of Federations. It promotes Canadian-style federalism abroad. An Ottawa source told me: “It’s hard to see why they wouldn’t extend the funding to the Forum, beyond that it was established by the Liberals. Maybe they’re just being vindictive. We know that they are nothing if not vindictive.”