Column: Harper softens edge in bid for re-election

Chantal Hebert Toronto Star Staff Staffheadshot for logo headshot .No one would describe Stephen Harper as a gambler. This prime minister is usually disinclined to roll the dice unless he is relatively certain they are loaded in his favour.

Yet he did just that when he decided to actively support former governor general MichaÎlle Jean’s bid to become the head of la Francophonie – the international organization of French-speaking nations.

A positive outcome for Jean’s bid was not necessarily in the cards.

If the African states that make up the majority of the members of the organization had managed to agree on a consensus candidate, Jean would not have emerged as the compromise choice.

From Harper’s perspective, the political costs of a failure could have been higher than the rewards of a victory.

Four years ago, he failed to secure enough support to earn Canada a seat on the United Nations Security Council. A lost bid to install Jean as head of la Francophonie would have been cast as yet more evidence of the Harper-induced decline of Canada’s international influence.

Little in Jean and Harper’s history demanded that he expend precious pre-election capital on an uncertain bet.

He was in opposition at the time of her appointment as governor general and his entourage had strong reservations as to her federalist credentials. A few years later, she had him account for his government’s actions behind closed doors for an hour before agreeing to prorogue Parliament on the eve of a confidence vote that would have brought down his minority government.

In return for backing Jean’s Francophonie campaign, Harper gets to bask in the glow of a Canadian diplomatic success. He can also presumably count on a nice big window on Africa for his international maternal health initiative.

More importantly though, on both scores her elevation will go some way to silence or at least tone down the rhetoric of the prime minister’s harshest critics.

That comes on the heels of two other moves that stand to recast Harper in a less adversarial light.

The first is his latest Supreme Court appointment.

The opposition was not consulted on the choice of Montreal lawyer Suzanne CÙtÈ and there will not be a parliamentary hearing to better acquaint Canadians with her.

In total, the operation amounts to a setback for the transparency that Harper had promised to deliver a decade ago.

But on the plus side, there was universal praise for the appointee. The timing – because it spares the court the inconvenience of being short of a member for an open-ended length of time – could be seen as an olive branch extended to Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

If there was an underlying political message, it was that Harper – even in the absence of opposition supervision – is perfectly capable of coming up with an acceptable pick in a timely manner (as long as it suits his purpose).

The other out-of-character move was the appointment of Pierre Claude Nolin as the government leader in the upper house.

A Mulroney Tory who hails from the progressive side of the Conservative family, Nolin’s main claim to fame as a senator is a report urging the legalization of marijuana. He is as close to a non-Conservative as Harper could have selected from his own party’s bench.

If the prime minister had wanted a mouthpiece for his office, he would have had a lot of more suitable choices. But with a potentially devastating auditor general’s audit of the senators’ expenses looming, even a controlling prime minister can see merit in keeping the upper house at arm’s length.

Harper cannot win re-election next year without wooing back the middle-of-the-road voters that handed him a majority in 2011.

Restoring some gender balance to the Supreme Court through the appointment of a new female judge; choosing a Senate leader whose stance on marijuana is liberal and earning an assist on the instalment, for the first time, of a woman as the head of la Francophonie are all moves in that direction.

When the dots between them are connected, the picture is that of a prime minister who will step out of his comfort zone if that is what it takes to win a fourth mandate.

Chantal HÈbert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2014
Torstar Syndication Services

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