Thursday, January 31, 2008

Has Stephen Harper jumped the shark?

I mean, seriously, his comments on ethnicity in the House of Commons yesterday come completely out of right field, and are so completely lacking grounding in reality, that one is almost forced to consider if he needs medical attention.

If you haven’t been paying attention, there’s a mini-scandal brewing around lobbying and the PMO. Specifically, Harper’s deputy press secretary, Dimitri Soudas and a Quebec Conservative organizer, Leo Housakos.

A joint investigation by the Globe and Mail and Radio-Canada is alleging that a member of the Prime Minister's Office and a Conservative fundraiser directly interfered in a pair of political dossiers.

The report, which aired on the CBC's French-language service on Tuesday night, alleges PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas intervened in favour of a Montreal real estate developer currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the federal government, and sat in on a meeting with representatives of an international military contractor looking to sell its wares.
There’s a lot of angles to this, of course, and the issue apparently dominated yesterday’s question period. No surprise there. What is surprising is this comment by Stephen Harper, in response to a BQ question. I’ll include both Q&A from Hansard for context, or lack thereof:

Mr. Michel Guimond (Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, BQ): Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister cannot ignore this issue and plead ignorance regarding the representations made by Housakos, and he cannot claim that this individual was a complete stranger, since it is his government that appointed him to VIA Rail.

In this context, will the Prime Minister tell us whether he ever met with M. Housakos at 24 Sussex Drive, his official residence?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, the Bloc member mentioned the names of two individuals of Greek origin, namely one employee who works here in Ottawa, and another who is a Conservative Party supporter, in Montreal. The fact that there are two Montrealers of Greek origin does not mean there is a plot.

That accusation, as you can see, is completely out of right field. There was never any prior mention made by any opposition party as to the ethnic origin of anyone involved. I wanted to wait to comment on this until today because I wanted to check the Hansard, and indeed the first person to say “Greek” during QP yesterday was Harper.

There is absolutely no basis for Harper to “play the race card” here. And for him to try to use ethnicity to deflect from the possible ethical transgressions of one of his senior advisers is disgusting, and doesn’t befit a Prime Minister of Canada.

Continuing on through Hansard, Liberal Denis Coderre described Harper’s “racially-based comments” as “degrading” in a preamble before another question on the lobbying issue, a question Peter Van Loan took, ignoring the racial issue. A little later the BQ came back up though and addressed it more directly; Harper answered, and ignored.
Mr. Gilles Duceppe (Laurier—Sainte-Marie, BQ): Mr. Speaker, in response to one of my questions, the Prime Minister suggested that we are asking questions about the influence peddling in his office, because the people involved are Greek. That is the same type of response we got from the Liberals to our questions about Alfonso Gagliano. Those are crass arguments.

Instead of using such arguments, could the Prime Minister simply answer my question? Did he ever meet with Leo Housakos at 24 Sussex?

ight Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, there is a big difference here. This company has not received any special favours or treatment. I do not understand the Bloc Québécois' complaint.

It wasn’t until after QP, during points of order, that the reprehensible comments of the PM were directly addressed by my MP, Liberal John Cannis, who is Greek himself:
Mr. John Cannis (Scarborough Centre, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of privilege predicated by the type of answers that the Prime Minister gave to some of the questions he was asked.

The Minister of Health is shaking his head, but when he faces the Greek Canadian community in the future, I will remind him.

I do not want to be interrupted. I have served five terms in this honourable House. I have had the honour and the privilege of representing my country Canada abroad and proudly see, as I look around this honourable chamber, the diversity that makes this great country of ours.

The Prime Minister in his response today put a black mark on the over half a million Greek Canadians who played even a small role in the development of this great country.

The Prime Minister insulted the entire Greek community. I want to get to the bottom of it. When answering questions that he was asked, why was it necessary for the Prime Minister and others to continually refer to these two people, Housakos and Soudas who works in his office, who supposedly acted improperly lobbying him, as Greek Canadians? I do not see how that ties together.

Mr. Speaker, we have all faced difficult issues, dealt with difficult problems, but never before in my tenure in the last five parliaments or before, have I ever experienced this.

I would ask the Prime Minister on behalf of over half a million Greek Canadians, some of whom even supported that party, to send them a card like he has done in the past and apologize. I demand that he stand in the House and apologize publicly to each and every Greek Canadian.

In closing, permit me if you will, Mr. Speaker, to say that this is a dark day for the Greek Canadian community and each and every Canadian of Greek origin. They came to do things differently as the Reform Party. They proved--

I guess Harper had left the chamber as it was Conservative house leader Peter Van Loan that replied to Cannis’ point of privilege. You may recall he was the guy that told us only Conservatives are real Canadians.
Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, CPC): Mr. Speaker, there has been a characterization put on the Prime Minister's comments that is not at all in accord with the Prime Minister's intention nor with what he said. In fact, I believe the Prime Minister was defending the people of Greek origin from what seemed to be unremitting attacks from the opposition.

Leo Housakos, whose character was repeatedly attacked by members of all the opposition parties, is a very proud member of the Greek community whose service to the Greek community is second to none. He was director of the Montreal Hellenic Board of Trade, director of the Hellenic Academic Foundation, former director of Zoom Media, Hellas, Greece, and former executive vice-president of the Hellenic Congress of Quebec. This is someone of whom we are very proud. I believe that is the point the Prime Minister was making.

We should not be attacking these people. We should be taking pride in their origins, as we are, and be proud they have an opportunity to play a role in the mainstream of this country. It is not a crime for them to speak to people in the government. They should be allowed to participate in the mainstream of our country.

OK, is Peter Van Loan on crack? I mean, seriously. No one was attacking them for being Greek, or because they’re Greek. That’s ridiculous. When I attack Van Loan and Harper it’s not because they’re middle-aged white guys, it’s because they’re idiots.

As I said, no one raised ethnicity as an issue until Harper did. And then Van Loan goes further, suggesting somehow the opposition is questioning their right to participate in the mainstream of the country? First, bite me Peter. Second, where? Where exactly did that happen? Show me.

This is a transparent and pathetic attempt by Harper and Van Loan to divert attention from the real issue, and it’s not going to go away. And now Harper has another scandal to deal with. Hopefully he’ll do the right thing, and apologize.

And another thing…

Putting this whole thing aside, lets look again at the Conservative defence line for the influence scandal:
The government admits the meeting took place in August 2006.

But Harper pointed out that the government has not shifted its policy in the 18 months since and has continued its battle against the Montreal real-estate firm Rosdev.

"This is bizarre," Harper said in response to a question from the Bloc Quebecois.

"The Bloc is complaining that somebody - a company - didn't receive special treatment by this government."

Opposition parties called for an investigation by the federal ethics commissioner and the NDP said Soudas should be suspended in the meantime. The Bloc called the prime minister's answer unacceptable.

"What the prime minister's saying is, 'It didn't work, so that's okay,' " said Bloc leader
Gilles Duceppe.
I think Duceppe has it exactly right here. It doesn’t matter that the intervention on the developers’ behalf failed. The issue is that the intervention never should have never happened in the first place. All the fact that it failed means is that Soudas probably doesn’t have a bright future as a lobbyist.

Anyway, now it’s all off to the Ethics Commissioner. But I remember when the Conservatives used to bray about the principle of Ministerial Responsibility. Does it not apply to Prime Ministers?

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Justin Socie said...

it was Conservative house leader Peter Van Loan that replied to Cannis’ point of privilege. You may recall he was the guy that told us only Conservatives are real Canadians.

What are you referring to here? I can't recall him saying that.

A BCer in Toronto said...

Sorry, I'd meant to include a link in that graph. It's linked now, it's a reference to this comment from Van Loan in response to a Liberal question in QP last year:

"Let me tell you what a real Canadian is. A real Canadian is somebody that stands-up for middle class taxpayers, helps working families with lower taxes, stands behind our troops when they're off in Afghanistan, and who does what he said he would do. That's what real Canadians are, and those are Conservatives."

The Rat said...

I think the real news will be whether or not Dion apologizes. Of course we cold have another round of "Dion speaks perfectly good English/Dion misspoke". One day you guys are going to have to decide one way or the other.

Miles Lunn said...

This is ridiculous. The issue has to do with a scandal, nothing to do with ethnicity (I use ethnicity instead of race as Greeks are ethnicity as opposed to race, they are at least according to statscan still defined as white) and everything to do with actions. It wouldn't matter what ethnicity or race Dmitri Soudas was, he would face those criticisms as he rightly deserves.

burlivespipe said...

Rat, your remote control must be busted. Go back to wearing that tinfoil hat because it does wonders for your flea-brain infestation...

The Rat said...

So Dion ISN'T being sued for making allegations of criminal activity against Soudas? Is my remote control lying to me on that one? I'm not sure how tinfoil will make it go away but if it does can we expect the Liberal caucus to be wearing tinfoil pork-pies in the commons? And if not, is that another sign of the lack of support for Dion among Liberals?

Gayle said...

rat - nice try on the deflection, but this is no different than that conservative MP (Poilievre or whatever his name is) being sued for referring to "extremists" in the liberal party.

In both cases nothing was filed in court. Both parties retracted the inflamatory language. This is a non-issue that was over before it started.

And if you think the Canadian public are going to be more outraged by the use of the term "extortion" than they were over Harper attempting to slur a liberal MP with implications of terrorist ties, or slandering a public servant with allegations she is willing to risk people's lives because she is a liberal appointee, or accusing an entire political party of being more concerned with terrorists than they are with our own soldiers, or somehow thinking that the fact someone is Greek is actually relevant to anything....well you are a fool. Canadians do not care that he cannot be sued under protection of Parliamentary priviledge. All they see is a nasty, bitter and twisted little man - and they are not impressed.

Harper jumped the shark a loooong time ago. His behaviour is now getting more exposure because the media, and, thankfully, the liberal party, have tired of the "Dion is not a leader" thing.