The achilles heel of our former prime minister, Paul “Mr. Dithers” Martin, was his inability to commit himself to a limited set of policies, for fear of alienating the voters. To call him a leader is a stretch of the word. Canadians knew that this man was incapable of dealing with a real crisis, or even effectively managing a country like Canada, and they wisely showed him the door, even though the most popular opposition party wasn’t much better.
In recent days, our current prime minister, Stephen “Mr. Angry” Harper is showing his achilles heel, and that is his inability to gracefully accept criticism, much less listen to contrarian views and adjust accordingly to good suggestions. So far during Harper’s term in office, we have had problems with his inducing Liberal David Emerson into crossing the floor. We have had complaints over the Conservatives cancelling the Liberals’ negotiated day care deals with the provinces. We have had virtual silence over Alberta’s plan to install private health services in defiance of the Canada Health Act and, most recently, we have had Harper’s refusal to debate Canada’s military commitment to Afghanistan.
Warren Kinsella calls these rookie mistakes, and he’s right. In and of themselves, these are all minor controversies, or they are instances of the government performing its perogative. What is keeping them in the news, and what is harming the Conservative’s hold on power, is the way that Harper and the people around him have reacted to the news.
Take the recent suggestion that there be a parliamentary debate on Canada’s military commitment to Afghanistan. Now, I support our troops efforts in Afghanistan. Between Afghanistan and Iraq, Afghanistan is the “good” war, necessary to bring order to a nation whose current mess is largely our responsibility, and a job that will take years before it’s finished. And I find statements, notably those made by NDP MP Alexa McDonough, lumping Afghanistan into Iraq as another of “George Bush’s imperial adventures” unfair and inaccurate. But I am not afraid of a debate. We as Canadians have already sent a number of our soldiers to their deaths. As a democratic society, we should be obliged to keep ourselves as up-to-date on events as possible, so that we know we are truly doing the best we can here, so that we can hold our governments accountable, and so that our troops’ sacrifices mean something.
I think any capable government would have just let the more shrill comments on the anti-war side stand on their own merits (or lack thereof), and welcomed an honest and open debate. They would understand that most Canadians accept that we’re in for a long haul and that our troops will have to sacrifice much, and — more importantly — that we could take that news. I’d even accept the statement, made by my Bloggers’ Hotstove colleague Greg Staples that perhaps we should hold off on a debate until our command role in this mission comes to an end, about nine months from now. But that’s not how Stephen Harper worded it:
“I’m saying that Canadians don’t cut and run at the first sign of trouble. That’s the nature of this country, and when we send troops into the field, I expect Canadians to support those troops.”
Okay, let us count the number of assumptions Harper makes about anybody who dares suggest that we have a debate in this country:
- That they don’t support the troops.
- That they are cowards who “cut and run at the first sign of trouble.”
- That Canadians support me, ergo those who don’t are anti-Canadian.
Okay, maybe the last one is a stretch on my part, but Harper is proving himself to be as much of a contortionist if he believes that asking for a debate in our democratic institutions means asking to renege on our international commitments.
This isn’t the first time that Harper has reacted angrily or defensively to legitimate criticisms of his policies. This is the same man who said that the NDP were as much a danger to this country as the Bloc Quebecois, or that those who are upset over the ethical imbalance of pulling David Emerson into cabinet (including a number of Conservative supporters) were just partisan anti-Conservative hacks. This is a man who doesn’t see criticism as an attempt to shape policy for the better in this country (or, to put it another way, the life-blood of a democratic nation). This is a man who sees any sort of criticism as a attack against him personally.
And given that the prime minister has a great big bullseye planted on his chest to receive every single complaint about what’s wrong with this country, both fair and unfair, this is a man who is highly unsuited to be prime minister. If you think things are bad now, imagine how Harper may react once he’s faced with real opposition to one of his more controversial policies.
Harper needs to get himself a thicker skin, and fast.