Some things never go right for prime ministers. Disturbing reports of enemy lists generated by his office torpedoed Stephen Harper’s attempt at a bright, breezy, teen idol kind of cabinet shuffle this week.
The shuffle, an attempt to rebrand a flailing, failing government complete with press releases via Twitter, was already imprisoned and caught between two horrific tragedies.
Torrential rains and unprecedented flooding in Calgary caused the Conservative caucus to be postponed, where presumably, the Prime Minister would have laid the groundwork for the shuffle. No doubt, he intended to soothe his restive caucus while playing victim to the person who should surely be his No. 1 enemy: Senator Mike Duffy, Mr. Harper’s very own appointee, who has singlehandedly tarnished the Conservative brand.
Having watched Calgary get back on its feet, the Prime Minister tried to turn the page on these past few disastrous few months of ethical missteps.
But again, tragedy intervened, in an unimaginable fashion – a driverless train, a town torched by noxious flames, families torn apart – in short, a war zone.
While these events transfixed the country with grief and sadness, Conservative backbenchers and Ministers were becoming restless under mounting stress. Vic Toews, the public safety minister, shockingly quit and walked out at a time when the country could have used some reassuring words. Peter Kent, the former minister of the environment, issued a bizarre pre-emptive press release saying that he was prepared to be removed from cabinet. Senator Marjorie LeBreton, long time Conservative stalwart, resigned as the government leader in the Senate, only for Senators to discover that she may be the last of their caucus to ever sit in cabinet.
But in spite of these unhappy folks within his orbit, the Prime Minister tried to move on. Finally, he unveiled his hyped new Degrassi High cabinet. How shiny! How exciting! Women! Young MPs! Who knew they were all lurking there behind that solid looking front-row cabal of white males?
All would be different now. Onwards and upwards. Things would change… except they didn’t.
Within hours of the Rideau Hall pomp and circumstance, news filtered out of that lists of enemies had been ordered by an individual in the PMO to assist in the transition of ministers to new portfolios. This was a shock to many of us who had served in former PMOs. Transition books were traditionally compiled on briefing issues and sometimes staffing suggestions (in order to allay fears of job losses) but to my knowledge, they never, ever included lists of bureaucrats, journalists and stakeholders as enemies.
Political watchers made immediate comparisons to Richard Nixon’s famous list of enemies when he was U.S. president. Mr. Nixon’s original list had 20 names, including the respected actor and humanitarian Paul Newman. Thoughts also turned to the late U.S Senator Joe McCarthy and his witch hunt for people he believed to be Communist sympathizers in the 1950s.
No one is really sure who first said the phrase “keep your friends close, your enemies closer.” Some attribute the quote to the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu, author of the timeless book The Art of War. Others are sure that Machiavelli, the Italian nobleman, who compiled the famed tome The Prince in an effort to instruct dictators, was the original author. Still others remember the words coming out of the mouth of Michael Corleone in the The Godfather.
No matter who said it, Mr. Harper’s staff clearly never listened to that advice. The Prime Minister’s shiny new day was ruined. But this time, not as a result of weather and not as a result of a horrific disaster. Instead, this latest disgraceful shambles was caused by small-minded political operatives who see themselves as constantly at war.
Surprise, Mr. Harper. They are your enemies. Or perhaps you are your own worst enemy. But it’s not the rest of us.
Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law.