12 stories that defined politics in 2013

John Geddes brings order to a bewildering year of scandal and surprise on Parliament Hill

(Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

How many women were in Stephen Harper’s cabinet after he shuffled it last July? (Hint: one more than before the shuffle.) How many members of Harper’s “inner circle” knew something, or so the NDP claimed back in October, about how the Prime Minister’s chief of staff paid off $90,000 of a certain senator’s disputed expenses? And, in a Senate whose members were chosen under a reformed selection process, how many years does Justin Trudeau propose senators should be limited to serving?

To all of these interesting questions, the answer happens to be the same as the number of zodiac signs or hours on the clock. But for our purposes here, in this fourth edition of a holiday season scan back over the year in federal politics, we are interested only in the months of the calendar. It might seem rather arbitrary to choose only one story for each month, but the discipline has a way of making a bewildering year of scandal and surprise begin to take on a semblance of order.

January: We briefly imagined that First Nations might top the year’s agenda.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

After the Idle No More movement protests of late 2012, Stephen Harper agreed to sit down with Aboriginal leaders early in 2013. Shawn Atleo, national chief of the mainstream Assembly of First Nations, attended (some other chiefs boycotted) and afterwards credited the Prime Minister with having “listened respectfully.” It looked like the start of something. Yet the next steps proposed at the meeting were vague and progress through the rest of the year proved elusive. Atleo survived a challenge to his AFN leadership. John Duncan resigned as Aboriginal affairs minister over inadvisedly contacting a tax court judge on behalf of a constituent, and Harper appointed Bernard Valcourt to replace him. Valcourt has clashed with Atleo on, among other files, native education. For First Nations, 2013 wasn’t a breakthrough year.

February: We got the feeling that the Senate scandal wasn’t going away.

Controversy over dubious housing allowance and expense claims filed by a few senators had being swirling since late 2012. But it was in February that the scandal showed serious signs of settling in as the year’s dominant federal politics story. Sen. Patrick Brazeau was charged with assault and sexual assault on Feb. 8, which didn’t have anything to do with Senate spending, but didn’t help the upper chamber’s image problem. Sen. Mike Duffy tried to put his big part of the story to rest on Feb. 22, declaring that he would “voluntarily” pay back contested living expenses. (Skip ahead to May’s chapter to see how that gambit worked out.) Talk of scrapping the Senate entirely began to seriously compete with calls for reform.March: We were reminded that federal budgets can stir up trouble.Adrian Wyld/CP

With his eighth budget, Jim Flaherty—Stephen Harper’s only finance minister (so far) and his sole cabinet minister to cling to the same portfolio since the Tories’ 2006 rise to power—aimed to send a message of restraint. Not just in spending, but as a philosophy of governing: Flaherty declared in his budget speech that government should be “a benign and silent partner” in the economy “and not an overbearing behemoth squeezing them at every turn.” Despite that tread-lightly tone, however, his plan was greeted by the provinces, at least, as startlingly heavy-handed. Their beef was with the Canada Job Grant, a new program that amounts to a unilateral federal overhaul of existing deals between Ottawa and the provinces to fund training. Premiers spent the rest of the year pushing back over the major program, which remains a serious source of federal-provincial friction.

April: We learned a lot even from front-runner’s careful campaign.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

By the time Justin Trudeau won the Liberal Party of Canada’s leadership on April 14, his victory was hardly a surprise. Trudeau had waged a fairly cautious front-runner’s campaign, unveiling little in the way of precise policy ideas. Still, the race was illuminating. He showed how he would target middle-class voters, including suburbanites who have been drawn in the past three elections to Harper’s economic message, new Canadians won over by the Conservatives’ assiduous ethnic outreach, younger voters who might lean NDP or Green, or not cast ballots at all, and Quebecers who have abandoned the Liberals in droves for a nearly a decade. As well, Trudeau was sometimes pushed hard by rivals like Marc Garneau and Martha Hall Findlay—and showed real resilience. Conservative and NDP strategists who’d hoped to see a callow dilettante instead recognized a new danger.

May: We’re jolted by the resignation (firing?) of the PM’s top aide.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

It was just possible, right up until the fall of Nigel Wright, to imagine that the Senate expenses scandal wouldn’t ultimately amount to much. After all, the Senate—packed with partisan patronage appointees, unanswerable to the people—has a lousy reputation to begin with. Even if a few Senators were shown to have abused their positions, how could their actions reasonably be construed as reflecting on the fundamental qualities of the government? And then Wright, the Prime Minister’s highly regarded chief of staff, was reported to have dipped into his personal wealth to pay off Duffy’s disputed expenses. More damagingly, the scheme seemed to have been hatched in a haze of subterfuge and dissembling. Wright was soon out of a job. And the rest of the year, and beyond, would be devoured largely by the classic questions of what Harper knew and when he knew it.

June: We learned a backbencher’s name and considered the MP’s role.

Jason Franson/CP

Vanishingly few Canadians could have named the Conservative MP for Edmonton-St. Albert before his early June resignation from the governing party’s caucus. But when Brent Rathgeber quit, he briefly became the most famous backbench MP on Parliament Hill. “I barely recognize ourselves,” Rathgeber wrote on his blog, “and worse, I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked.” He meant, essentially, Tories were turning into Liberals. His gripe was broadly over Harper’s rigid control of his caucus and the government’s lack of transparency and accountability. More specifically, he exited when his own private member’s bill, which had sought public disclosure of bureaucrats’ salaries over $188,000 a year, was amended by his fellow Tory MPs, on orders from above, so it would have only revealed the very small handful of public-service salaries over $444,661. Few understand that issue very well; many recognized Rathgeber as the embodiment of previously muted Conservative discontent over how Harper runs the show.

July: We saw premiers not just relaxing, but sending stern messages, in wine country.

Aaron Lynett/CP

It’s hard to beat a resort hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. during a sunny stretch of summer grape-ripening weather. The locale fed cynicism about whether the provincial premiers really meant to do much at their summer summit. But they did. Since Harper has declined as Prime Minister to meet regularly with his fellow “first ministers,” that old model of executive federalism has basically fallen into disuse. The the provincial political bosses, however, didn’t waste their annual confab. Ganging up to protest Flaherty’s Canada Job Grant, many of them vowed to boycott the ambitious on-the-job training plan unless he dramatically altered it. As well, they stepped up pressure for more federal infrastructure money. And this was a landmark gathering for women in politics, given the prominence of Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, B.C.’s Cristy Clark and Alberta’s Alison Redford, plus the formidable presences of Quebec’s Pauline Marois, and Newfoundland’s Kathy Dunderdale.

August: We discovered how Tories would try to undermine Trudeau.

Michelle Siu/CP

When Justin Trudeau declared in late July that he thought legalization of marijuana made sense, he was taking a mere policy risk. When he admitted in late August that he had smoke pot at a dinner party at his Montreal home—after being elected an MP in 2008—he opened himself up to personal attacks. Sure enough, Justice Minister Peter MacKay slammed the novice Liberal leader for  “flouting the laws of Canada” and setting a “poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones.” Attacking Trudeau’s for having smoked marijuana became a standard feature of Conservative Question Period lines, and a theme in Conservative ads, especially those directed at immigrant communities. Expect Trudeau to be under fire on this front right through the 2015 election, as Conservatives strive to make his judgment and maturity an issue.

September: We winced at graphic images of limits on religious garb.

(Jacques Boissinot/CP)

It was really the pictures that created the uproar. The text of what was called the Quebec Charter of Values was offensive, in the way it sought to dictate what religious symbols provincial employees would be allowed to wear (small crucifixes, for instance) and which were to be banned (Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps and Muslim headscarves). But the helpful pictures provided by the Quebec government to illustrate the permitted and the forbidden were what truly sparked outrage. In Ottawa, the reactions varied subtly. Justin Trudeau was out early with his firm objections. Thomas Mulcair was a bit later but no less emphatic. Jason Kenney, speaking for the government as multiculturalism minister, was strangely terse and uncharacteristically restrained, but did say Ottawa would challenge Quebec in court if the rules seemed to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Smart observers explained (none more persuasively than Paul Wells in his Maclean’s column) how the Parti Québécois came to champion such a controversial position.

October: We saw three Senators kicked out of a divided upper chamber.

Tom Hanson/CP

The unprecedented move by the Conservative government to suspend three Senators—Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, all appointed by Harper—drew attention to the red chamber as rarely before. Duffy spoke twice with vaudevillian flare, defending his own actions, while accusing the Prime Minister’s Office of deception and cover-up. Wallin addressed the Senate with wounded pride, Brazeau with embittered resignation. The senators were split. Even Sen. Don Plett, a former Conservative party president, broke ranks to argue that the three being given he boot hadn’t been allowed a fair process. Sessions filled with impassioned rhetoric ended when all three of the embattled former Tories were voted out. Harper’s team must have hoped it would be enough to stop the worst if the bleeding from the Senate scandal. It wasn’t.

November: We gave ourselves over to Ford’s lurid and ludicrous saga.

Aaron Harris/Reuters

When Rob Ford finally admitted on Nov. 5 that he had smoked crack cocaine, the story of his embarrassing, at times disgusting, run as Toronto’s mayor eclipsed for several days, and then sporadically for weeks to come, pretty much everything else in Canadians politics. The details of what Ford did and said, by turns brutally ugly and often, admittedly, highly entertaining, mattered a great deal in Toronto. But on the federal scene, it was the reactions that resonated. Ford had been a close ally of Harper’s Conservatives in the key Toronto electoral battleground, so most federal Tories dodged questions. Then Employment Minister Jason Kenney stepped up to frankly denounce Ford for bringing “dishonour to public office.” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, an old family friend of the Fords, was visibly shaken by the developments and was later reported to have been angry with Kenney in a confrontation on the floor of the House.

December: We again see top judges forcing the hand of politicians.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Among influential figures in Harper’s Conservative party, the conviction runs deep that Canadian judges have been too assertive in the Charter of Rights era. Yet labeling the Supreme Court of Canada as unduly “activist” has become more difficult in recent years. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin runs a centrist court; and, after all, five of its eight serving judges were appointed by Harper. (A sixth Harper appointee, Marc Nadon, is currently sidelined while his eligibility to fill one of three Quebec seats on the nine-member court is challenged). In December, McLachlin wrote the court’s unanimous decision on prostitution, giving the government a year to write new laws to allow prostitutes to work more safely. The case is freighted questions of sexual morality and goes to the heart of the Harper government’s key law-and-order messaging. Many Conservatives are clearly unwilling to preside over the rise of a regulated sex trade. So the ruling might, quite unintentionally, open the door for this government to get tough—perhaps, following Sweden and France, by cracking down, not on sellers of sex, but on buyers.

(And for the inveterate political obsessive, now musing about how ’13 stacked up against previous years, here are the links to politics-in-12-chapters reviews from 2010, 2011 and 2012.)