Magnetic north

I liked Norman Spector’s answer to my question about where Stephen Harper gets his standing to judge other leaders’ moral compasses. Norman writes, “I’d say he’s the cleanest prime minister we’ve had since Pierre Trudeau.” Many will quibble — some already have — with using Trudeau as the golden age of propriety against which assorted successors should be judged. Trivia buffs will feel, vaguely, that Kim Campbell has somehow been wrongly slighted.

But Norman’s point is fair: allegations of shoddy ethics were a huge albatross around the necks of the successors to Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. But at least if Harper were to leave power in the next year or so, his successor would face no such burden. A book about Mulroney’s government called On The Take made a certain amount of sense — if not about the boss (we shall see), then about some of the people he brought with him. A book about Chrétien’s years with the same title would make sense too. I can think of many things to call a book about Harper’s government, but On The Take would be a non sequitur. His government has no odour about it of assorted shady characters caught with their hands in the till. That’s a non-trivial change. It’s worth acknowledging. And the Prime Minister deserves credit for it. Spector wins the steak knives on this one, because his is a fair reply to my broad question.

Now. Having said that, I’ll point out that when Harper accused Michael Ignatieff this morning of lacking a moral compass, he wasn’t making a broad point, he was trying to make a narrow one. He wasn’t accusing Ignatieff of on-the-take-style corruption. He was accusing him of excessive partisanship. “I think what Canadians will see is when it comes to a very difficult issue of government conduct and government ethics” — whether Brian Mulroney should face a public inquiry into his dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber — “this government has behaved responsibly and the other party, the other leader, has absolutely no moral compass.”

On that narrower point, Harper’s statement is still breathtaking. It is certainly true that, no matter how you think the Harper government should have handled the Mulroney matter, at some point in the last three years Harper was handling it precisely the way you wanted, because Harper has handled this matter in every conceivable way. Stonewall? Check. Pretend there was no ethical issue? You bet. Claim prime ministers should simply never investigate their predecessors, after he already had launched an investigation into his Liberal predecessors? Yup. Call an inquiry? Yessirree. Stonewall on terms of reference and otherwise stall the inquiry’s progress? That too. Cut the big guy loose as soon as it started to look bleak? That’s only the latest. One presumes more pirouettes will come.

“Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberal party, when this matter first broke, were practically demanding that I throw Mr. Mulroney in prison without a trial,” Harper said at the same scrum. “Now they’re out there pretending that somehow they’re his best friends and they don’t agree with any of this.”

Hmm. Flip-flopping on how to treat Brian Mulroney: Can you imagine Stephen Harper doing anything like that? The Stephen Harper who left the Progressive Conservative Party in 1987 to launch a protest movement designed to destroy the Mulroney government?

This Stephen Harper?

So to sum up: Stephen Harper has excellent standing to criticize another party on questions of personal comportment with regard to money. That is a formidable political advantage and one he has earned fair and square. But if I thought he might take my advice, I would warn him against calling another guy a flip-flopper, an opportunist, or a guy with an unseemly eagerness to send his most profound political convictions spiralling out the nearest window at the first whiff of a stray gettable vote. Here’s a little haiku he can recite to himself the next time he feels the urge to accuse somebody else of flip-flopping:

Fixed election date

Wajid Khan and Emerson

“Québécois nation”

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