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From a Middle East trip to temporary foreign workers -- Looking back at 2014

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Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

January in the Middle East

The year in federal politics began with a Prime Ministerial trip to Israel, the West bank and Jordan that was widely considered a political success.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Canada's Stephen Harper the warmest welcome possible. 

Netanyahu lavished a degree of effusive praise on Harper that he reserves for no other world leader -- certainly not the President of Israel's most important ally and biggest funder, the United States.

The American administration may be solidly pro-Israel, but it still would like a lasting and viable peace settlement with the Palestinians, an idea that the Israeli leader only occasionally pretends to support, in the most tepid and unenthusiastic fashion.

One gets the clear impression that the current Likud government in Israel would rather control and "pacify" the millions of Palestinians under occupation than reach any reasonable political accommodation with them.

Just this week, the Israeli government did not even bother to express regret -- let alone apologize -- when its troops killed an unarmed Palestinian Authority minister who was participating in a peaceful demonstration.

Official policy on illegal settlements is never uttered

Harper is on the same wavelength as his hawkish Israeli colleague.

Canada may, officially, consider the Israeli settlements on occupied territory to be illegal. The government even says so on the Foreign Affairs website.

You will never get the Prime Minister to say so publicly, however.

That contradiction created just about the only tense moment for Harper during his Middle East visit, when reporters pressed him on the point at a joint news conference with the Israeli Prime Minister.

Netanyahu came to the rescue when he scolded Canadian journalists, saying "the settlements are not the real barrier to peace."

The Israeli Prime Minister did not bother to say what those barriers were, and nobody dared ask.

Pierre Poilievre's passive-aggressive response to robocalls 

When Parliament returned from its annual winter break in late January of this past year the government did not wait long to table its legislative response to the scandals and outrages that had plagued the Canadian electoral process.

Those were especially troublesome during the 2011 election, including as they did the unprecedented effort to suppress votes through misleading robocalls.

Reforming the electoral process was never high on Harper's priority list. He was obliged to at least make a show of doing something, however, when the Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, issued a series of recommendations that were, in part, a response to the so-called robocall affair.

It is worth reminding ourselves what that was all about.

The robocall scandal was, at heart, about partisan political operatives impersonating officials of Elections Canada in order to deprive voters of the opportunity to exercise their franchise.

Although only one person has been convicted for making false robocalls (to tell voters their polling stations had moved), there is lots of evidence that the phenomenon was far more widespread.

In addition, whoever organized the robocalls almost certainly had to have access to the Conservative Party's central database.

The Harper government reacted to the outcry over robocalls with much blustering denial and a pledge (of dubious sincerity, we would later discover) to make sure such abuses do not recur.

Mayrand forced the government's hand when he laid out his agency's proposals for reforms to head off this sort of fraud in the future.

Elections Canada's suggestions included giving investigators the power to compel testimony from recalcitrant witnesses. There were a number of such recalcitrant folks among Conservative Party officials. Investigators suspected these officials were connected to robocall activity. We'll probably never know the full story on that. Those Conservative folks simply refused to talk.

The party that fancies itself the defender of law and order could not, however, blithely ignore both the Chief Electoral Officer and public concern about election abuses. And so Harper made a commitment to bring his own package of reforms to the House -- all in due course.

Nary a witness comes forward to defend Poilievre's oxymoronic legislation

The Prime Minister put first one Democratic Reform Minister, Albertan Tim Uppal, and then another, the über-partisan Pierre Poilievre, on the file, but for many months the clock ticked on and there was no legislation.

Then, early in February, Poilievre plopped a thick volume on MPs' desks.

He labelled it the Fair Elections Act and tried to have Canadians believe that this was the government's muscular response to fraudulent robocalls and other abuses.

Poilievre even boasted he was giving investigators "sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand," when he was doing pretty much the opposite.

Much was written about this odious piece of legislation, including in this space, and scores of witnesses appeared before both the House and Senate committees considering the Elections Bill. Virtually all of them condemned one or other of the Bill's many dangerous provisions. And many of those who testified were people of great respect and authority, such as former Auditor General Sheila Fraser and former Reform Party leader Preston Manning.

But what speaks most eloquently about the fatally flawed nature of the Fair Elections Act is the fact that the Conservatives could not find more than one or two credible witnesses to speak in its defence. There were legions of witnesses who eviscerated it.

That hardly believable fact must set some kind of new record.

In the end, Poilievre caved a little bit -- largely because of backlash from within Conservative ranks -- and, very exceptionally for this government, agreed to a few substantive amendments.

Still, the Harper government is hardly repentant for this partisan exercise, disguised as fixing the electoral process. As the year came to an end, Poilievre had plopped a new bill, spawn of Fair Elections, before the House. He calls it the Citizen's Voting Act, and its purpose is to apply the Fair Elections Act rules, especially concerning ID, to Canadian citizens voting from foreign countries.

This new bill may be a legitimate and needed exercise. But Poilievre spices his announcement with so much hyperventilated and self-congratulatory rhetoric that one is inevitably suspicious.

The House will take up Poilievre's latest proposed legislation when Parliament returns at the end of January, 2015.

A stand-pat budget (income-splitting would come months later)

The late Jim Flaherty's last budget, which came less than a week after Poilievre's masterpiece of dissimulation, was something of a non-event. It contained no new significant measures either on the tax side or on spending. It is now clear that the Prime Minister was keeping the big tax announcement -- income-splitting -- for himself, and wanted to wait for a propitious moment closer to the coming election.

Harper also probably wanted to get Flaherty, a skeptic about the income-splitting idea, out of the way before fulfilling one of the Conservatives' major 2011 election pledges.

Flaherty stepped aside in March, shortly after the Prime Minister big-footed him in the House by answering a question on income-splitting that had been directed at the Finance Minister. Flaherty's death less than a month later came as a shock, especially since it was so sudden and happened while the House was sitting.

It reminded MPs and Canadians, in general, that politicians are people too, and that their jobs can be pretty stressful.

Courts unflinchingly call Harper to order

In March, the Supreme Court issued the first of a series of court rulings that defied the Harper government.

In this first case, the Court ruled that Harper's choice of Marc Nadon to fill a vacant Quebec seat on the Supreme Court was unconstitutional, because Nadon, a federal court judge for 20 years, lacked the necessary expertise in Quebec's distinct civil code.  

In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could neither unilaterally reform nor abolish the Senate. Consent of seven provinces that speak for at least 50 per cent of the population would be needed.  

Both Harper's claim that, in line with the doctrine of the Reform Party of which he was once a charter member, he would transform the Senate into an elected body, and NDP leader Tom Mulcair's that he would abolish it looked hollow in light of this decision.

Only Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's more modest promise to find a non-partisan way to appoint truly qualified folks to sit in the chamber of sober second thought still looked at least feasible. The constitution does not, it seems, bar a Prime Minister from consulting whomever he wishes before making appointments to the Upper House.

The third of this triumvirate of judicial smack downs was the federal court ruling, in July, that the government had to restore health care for all refugees. The government has appealed, of course, and this case may well end up in the Supreme Court.

Attacking a respected Chief Justice -- a new low?

The Nadon affair resulted in an unprecedented public spat between the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice, Beverley McLachlin.

McLachlin had, it seems, tried to speak to the Prime Minister when she heard that he might be considering appointing Nadon. She wanted to warn Harper that such an appointment might be constitutionally problematic.

In the eyes of the entire legal community such a communication on McLachlin's part would be entirely appropriate and even useful, but Justice Minister Peter MacKay and the Prime Minister did not see it that way. They quite publicly scolded the Chief Justice for attempting to make "inappropriate" contact with the Prime Minisiter. McLachlin was forced to make a public statement in response, to defend her integrity.

The Canadian Bar Association and just about every jurist, legal expert and practicing lawyer in Canada supported McLachlin, often quite vocally.

A two-tiered guest worker system

In June, toward the end of the spring session of Parliament, there came the long awaited reforms to the much criticized, and much abused, Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The Harper government had once boasted that its vast expansion of the Canadian guest worker system was a great boon to business, allowing for just-in-time skilled (and unskilled) workers to help deal with putative "labour shortages" and supposed mismatches between the skills of Canadian workers and the needs of business.

A series of well-publicized abuses of the system put the government on the spot, and Harper sent out his number one fireman, Employment Minister Jason Kenney, to douse the flames.

In June, Kenney did just that with his characteristic blend of self-righteous rhetoric and policy wonkiness.

The Employment Minister's solution was not to scrap the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, but, rather, to divide it into two tiers: one for high-skilled temporary folks who come mostly from developed countries, and the other for low-paid folks who come from the developing world.

Those on the first tier are to be cherished and encouraged. They might even find a path to permanent residency and citizenship.

On the other hand, those on the second tier are to understand that while the Canadian economy needs their labour from time to time, they should not entertain any ideas about staying here, long term, let alone bringing their families to Canada. They should know that to Canada they are nothing more than mobile and replaceable cheap labour, with precious few rights. Kenney underscored that point emphatically. These low skilled workers, he said, should harbour no illusions about their futures when they come to Canada to flip burgers or clean toilets.

Listening to Harper's star Minister one could not help but think of the days when that great adventure in nation building, the Canadian Pacific Railway, was built on the sweat and labour of imported workers, workers who had neither rights nor, in the eyes of those who imported them, future prospects in Canada.

Those were the attitudes of the second half of the 19th century, the era of robber barons and their brand of swashbuckling, heedless profiteering.

Plus ça change...

Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper


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