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Lawrence Martin

The politics of power: Hello, easterners Add to ...

So much for the good guys.

A few months ago, it was Jim Prentice and Jay Hill, two of the classier men among the Conservatives, who left the government. This past weekend, announced quietly on a Saturday morning following the calamity in Japan, it was Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl, two of the more high-minded, who are doing the same.

All four are westerners, meaning the government is now more firmly under the sway of the Big East, the dominant group being several cabinet ministers who served under Mike Harris’s hard-line government in Ontario.

You want a definition of sea change? In Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance in 2003, you could scarcely find a sitting member from Ontario. Now that province pulls the chains.

By coincidence, the latest announced departures of the ethically upright follow a fortnight in which the Conservatives have been sideswiped by charges of breaking election laws over spending limits in the 2006 campaign as well as a ruling by the House Speaker that the Harper government may have been in contempt of Parliament.

With an election in the offing, Conservative supporters are rushing to the barricades in defence of the government against these and other sleaze-related allegations. These offences aren’t scandals, their plea runs. So what’s the big deal?

Technically, they’re correct. The charges over the “in and out” campaign spending affair, for example, have not been proved. The accusations of anti-democratic actions – from shutting down inquiries to padlocking Parliament – constitute what can better be described as abuse of power. Judging the Conservatives on this question depends on one’s standards. If those standards are sufficiently low, the Conservatives won’t suffer serious damage on the integrity file.

Despite having promised a new ethical era, the Tories also seem to be relying on an old standby in the face of abuse allegations – well, the Liberals did the same thing. No matter that this line of reasoning is both morally and intellectually infantile, you hear it from their apologists every day of the week.

The ministers who left or are leaving the Conservative cabinet did so for a variety of reasons. The nature of the government Mr. Harper is running may be among them. Other reasons could be institutional calcification and, in the cases of Mr. Prentice and Mr. Day, the thought that they might better prepare a future run for the party leadership from the outside.

The departures won’t hurt the Harper party in the coming election. The Prime Minister need not worry about the security of his western base, certainly not in the short term. With 106 seats, Ontario, not Quebec, is where political gold lies, and having major strength at the cabinet table from that province serves Mr. Harper’s interests well. From the old Harris government, the Tories have House Leader John Baird, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Trade Minister Peter Van Loan, Industry Minister Tony Clement and campaign manager Guy Giorno.

Besides these key posts, easterners hold Justice, Foreign Affairs, Defence and the Environment. After a decade, from 1993 to 2003, of frustration, western Reformers succeeded under Mr. Harper in expanding eastward. Having done so, they probably never imagined their weight being so scant at the cabinet table.

What’s notable about Mr. Day, Mr. Prentice, Mr. Hill and Mr. Strahl is that they were low key and reasonable, not inclined to engage in character assassination. They won admiration for their sense of decency, so it’s in this respect that their departures will hurt the government.

The idea that we’ll see Mr. Day and Mr. Prentice again is unlikely. There’s a notion out there that, if Mr. Harper doesn’t win a majority, his days are numbered. That notion is poppycock. A minority will give him three wins in a row. He has iron command over the party. He loves power. He won’t be dislodged.

 

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