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Reginald Stackhouse (James Lewcun)
Reginald Stackhouse (James Lewcun)

Reginald Stackhouse

Focus on the big stuff, Mr. Harper Add to ...

When our "off-again" Parliament becomes "on-again," this former Progressive Conservative MP hopes his party's political heirs will turn the public reaction to the autocratic, cavalier abuse of prorogation from a loss into a gain.

The recovery can be simple - so simple it is being overlooked by an often perceptive but sometimes myopic Conservative leadership. The solution is to stay focused on the big issues, and stop getting into trouble over secondary ones.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has been impressive in dealing with the world credit crisis, doing the right things and avoiding mistakes. It has handled the "Buy American" threat with a persistent skill that has paid off. It has stretched its trading arm across the Pacific with concrete results and the prospect of more. It has marshalled Canada's aid to Haiti with speed and skill. It may not have made a great leap forward at Copenhagen, but nor did anyone else.

Why, then, does the government persist in getting itself caught in the wringer over one low-level issue after another, when it could finesse its way out with relatively little effort or genius?

One example was the second contrived, indefensible, needless prorogation of Parliament in the span of just over a year. Arousing a public that had been swinging toward the minority government was a colossal error of judgment over an issue - allegations of torture of Afghan detainees - that could have been easily put to rest with a few conciliatory words that could have even involved the former Liberal government in the guilt.

Another example is the case of Omar Khadr, which now faces the government with the vote-losing, image-staining temptation of defying the Supreme Court. Why? For what gain? Is bringing one Canadian home from Guantanamo Bay to stand trial such a threat to "peace, order and good government" that the Conservatives must keep the issue alive, just because they can't admit they made a mistake, like the Liberals before them?

Maybe it's a hangover from the Reform side of the party's ancestry that explains this partly ideological, partly psychological dogmatic intransigence. Maybe it's juvenile refusal to accept the biblical wisdom that "A soft answer turneth away wrath." But this course of action promises no gain that will exceed its loss.

Conservative supporters can only hope their party's leadership will take the advice of a book title published a few years back, Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. Especially when they've been doing so well with the "big stuff."

Another ruler with a propensity to send Parliament home when it refused to do his bidding was England's Charles I. And look what happened to him.

Reginald Stackhouse is principal emeritus and research professor at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is a former Progressive Conservative member of Parliament.

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