It’s time that the Prime Minister of Canada realized the pressing need to spend more time at home tending the Canadian garden. His tendency to neglect key domestic files while being often out of the country is obviously hurting his government and the Conservative Party.
It was perfectly symbolic that the Supreme Court’s bombshell ruling on the Marc Nadon appointment should have come when Stephen Harper was on a flight to Ukraine. At key stages in the developing Senate scandal, reporters have had to pester him in New York and Peru for comment. The Prime Minister always looks happier abroad than in Ottawa. Whether or not Mr. Harper is travelling more than his predecessors, it is rapidly becoming clear that he is too inattentive to business in Canada.
The image of Stephen Harper as a control freak pulling every political string in his government has never been particularly accurate. As any leader must, Mr. Harper delegates. His problem is that he is delegating important domestic political issues to a fault, leaving matters to staffers and ministers who are not up to their jobs.
That proved spectacularly true with the staff of the Prime Minister’s Office in its handling of the Senate mess. Mr. Harper compounded this failure of competence and integrity by not cleaning house or offering a serious explanation to Canadians. Instead he forced a hapless parliamentary secretary to virtually destroy a career with comical evasion and repetition.
In recent weeks it’s also become clear – but it has been no surprise – that the government’s attempt to reform our electoral legislation has been bungled in both drafting and defence by the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, a political lightweight with no credibility outside of the most extreme partisan circles. So far, our too-often-absent Prime Minister has given Mr. Poilievre neither back-up nor the back of his hand, even as the government’s reputation for electoral integrity continues to erode.
Now we have an enormously serious blow to the government because of an unprecedented botching of the Prime Minister’s latest Supreme Court appointment. There will be an intense postmortem of this mess, but it is striking that once again the man who made the appointment is not present to explain himself and show us the future.
Of course all leaders are occasionally victimized by bad timing. But Mr. Harper’s foreign travel seems to represent a deliberate agenda. He may particularly enjoy the company of global movers and shakers; he may feel he is playing an important role on the world stage; he may think his foreign policies play well with voters at home. His penchant for globetrotting is reminiscent of his great Conservative predecessor, Sir Robert Borden, who was often abroad in 1917-1919 working on issues of war and peace. Borden had never much liked the muck of domestic politics.
But Borden had much more justification for being at, say, the Paris Peace Conference, than Mr. Harper has for grandstanding in Ukraine, junketing in Israel, or hobnobbing at pointless G8 meetings. And notwithstanding Borden’s real statesmanship abroad, his government and his party eventually paid a huge price in Canada when incompetent lieutenants, such as the arch-partisan Arthur Meighen, alienated one domestic constituency after another.
It took about a third of a century for Canadian conservatism to recover from Borden’s inattention in his final years as leader. As the Conservative Party continues to trail in the polls, it’s surely time to wonder whether the verdict of history on Stephen Harper may be that after 2011 he was too often wandering around the world – courting foreign glory Canada does not have – when he should have been at home minding his business, and ours.
Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.