Perceptions count

While working for another newspaper nearly two decades ago, Charles Mayer, the then minister of state for grains and oilseeds, popped into my office to talk to me about an editorial I had written. 

Mayer (MP for Portage-Marquette, now Portage-Lisgar), was a bit perturbed. He began his comments to the effect that I had referred to senior Manitoba cabinet minister and Provencher MP Jake Epp as a eunuch. Of course, that word appeared nowhere in the editorial, but Mayer still made that leap in logic.

What I did write in the editorial was that Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers were unable to argue effectively in presenting the case that Winnipeg should have received the over billion-dollar maintenance contract for the Canadian Armed Forces’ new CF-18 fighter jets. 

Then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had made a purely political decision to award the contract to a Montreal-based company despite a superior and less costly bid from Winnipeg-based Bristol Aerospace. The decision would come back to haunt Mulroney and the Tories as it split their party and led to the creation of the Reform Party and the slogan The West Wants In. The right would remain fractured until the recent reunion between the PCs and the Reform Party morphed into the Canadian Alliance.

Mayer said Epp was always looking after Manitoba’s interest, but he failed to make a convincing case against the perception that the merits of the Bristol bid were sacrificed to politics and the need to woo Quebec voters. In politics, perceptions are everything — my argument in the editorial — and the perception was that Manitoba’s MPs, including then Health Minister Epp, were not that important in the overall scheme of things to the Tories.

Mayer muttered something about the many Tory gifts bestowed on Manitoba by Ottawa, but it was all hollow in the wake of the CF-18 fiasco. A bad decision is still bad regardless of how hard you try to gloss over it. Actually, Mayer appeared almost apologetic in presenting his case  — even he knew that the Mulroney decision was a slap in the face to the West. 

The political repercussions came when the Tories, fractured further by the failed Meech and Charlottetown accords, gained only two seats in the House of Commons in the 1993 federal election. It took 12 years to repair the damage.

Within the Liberal governments of the Jean Chretien and Paul Martin years, Manitoba was blessed with decidedly powerful cabinet ministers. Lloyd Axworthy held the plum foreign affairs ministry until he retired from politics in 2000 and Reg Alcock was the Treasury Board  president until he was defeated in the last election. In both instances, plenty of federal money flowed or was promised to Winnipeg and Manitoba for such diverse projects as the floodway, the Kenaston underpass and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights during their tenures in cabinet.

With the election of the Stephen Harper revamped Tories, Provencher MP Vic Toews has been appointed as justice minister. It’s also a plum position, but what remains to be seen is whether Toews can duplicate the success of the former Liberal cabinet ministers.

Toews is the sole Manitoba MP in the Harper cabinet. That’s not unusual. After all, Manitoba has only 14 seats in the House of Commons and it is necessary for any prime minister to balance the needs of regions, provinces and gender, while taking into account experience and loyalty to the cause.

Toews has been a stalwart right-of-centre politician from the time he was first elected as a Manitoba MLA. He definitely has the experience since he also served as justice minister in the Gary Filmon provincial government. 

In what appears to be a right-of-centre cabinet — it has three former Ontarians from the Mike Harris provincial government in high-profile positions, including Jim Flaherty as finance minister — Toews will fit right in.

But, the real danger to the Tories is how these powerful politicians handle their ministries within a minority government. If they should pursue an agenda that separates them further from the Opposition Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois, there could be a political price to pay — the three parties could unite to bring down the government. It probably won’t happen within the next few months since the Liberals are still in disarray after their election defeat, but, once they elect a new leader, what the Tories do between now and then will have a bearing on their political fortunes.

It seems that Harper believes he is in the midst of a honeymoon period, having defied the pundits and his own election promises to appoint the unelected Michael Fortier of Montreal, a key party organizer in Quebec, to the Senate and then to cabinet as the minister of public works, the department closely associated with the sponsorship scandal under the Liberals. Since he will reside in the Senate, Fortier will not be available for MP questioning on how his department spends taxpayers’ money. Fortier has also said that he will remain in the Senate until the next federal general election and not pursue a House of Commons seat through a byelection — not a promising start to Harper’s policy claim that he will only appoint elected senators to the Upper Chamber.

Another major surprise was the appointment of David Emerson, a Vancouver MP, as industry minister. Emerson was elected on January 23 as a Liberal who had been highly critical of the Conservative Party. He called himself “the Conservatives’ worst nightmare,” and said their policies will only allow the strong to survive and the weak to die. It remains to be seen if Emerson was prophetic and his appointment becomes a nightmare for the Conservatives. 

Already, loyal Western Conservative MPs are in shock because of the appointments of Fortier and Emerson to the cabinet, as are the voters of Vancouver-Kingsway who had two weeks earlier believed they had elected a Liberal, not a Tory, to Parliament.

As for Toews, Manitobans will have to wait and see how much political clout he is really able to wield in the new government. Probably his one hope is that a contract in the same vein as the CF-18 fiasco does not arise to test his position in cabinet, as was the case during the tenure of Epp and Mayer.