Harper extending personal control to oversight of national security and intelligence gathering

Posted by admin on May 18th, 2011

By TIM NAUMETZ Published May 18, 2011 8:42 PM, Hill Times

PARLIAMENT HILL—Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Cabinet overhaul reveals he intends to “move and move quickly” with steep public service cuts and plans to extend his notorious personal control over government affairs into a surprising arena—the oversight of national security and intelligence gathering by a range of military and civilian agencies and departments. Underneath the surface of new ministers Mr. Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) shuffled or appointed on Wednesday to major and minor portfolios, two unprecedented changes to the Cabinet’s structure surprised political opponents and prompted comment that the majority government Mr. Harper won on May 2 has emboldened him into heading in new directions entirely unexpected prior to the election campaign.

MPs said the changes—combined with Mr. Harper’s almost audacious appointment of three defeated Conservative election candidates to the Senate immediately after the Cabinet shuffle—suggest he is prepared to wield his new-found power as though his Parliamentary majority is matched by support from a majority of electors. Mr. Harper’s Conservatives, while winning 166 of the 308 Commons seats, won support from only 39.6 per cent of voters.

“I think reasonable Canadians look at this and go ‘boy, that’s kind of hard to defend,’” Liberal MP David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.), the party’s House leader in the Commons, said about the Senate appointments. In a press release, Mr. Harper said he intended to appoint former Cabinet minister Josée Verner, who lost her Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que., riding and two former Senators who had resigned, it turns out temporarily, to run for election in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador—Larry Smith and Fabian Manning.

One of the surprise measures in the Cabinet shuffle was the creation of a new sub-committee of Cabinet’s Treasury Board Committee, made up of Cabinet heavyweights and key ministers to oversee sweeping cuts to the public service, and possibly government programs.

The other dramatic measure was the establishment of an entirely new committee of Cabinet ministers responsible for overseeing national security and intelligence agencies, even intelligence and information gathered through delivery of Canadian aid programs. It will be only the second of two Cabinet committees now chaired by the Prime Minister, the first being the cabinet Committee on Priorities and Planning, which has long been led by prime ministers and through which recommendations from all six other Cabinet committees must pass.

The Cabinet Committee on National Security will provide “broad strategic direction for security and foreign policy related to Canada’s national interest, and [oversee] Canada’s national security response activities,” its description in background notes says.

The new panel includes Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Provencher, Man.), responsible for CSIS and RCMP intelligence gathering, as vice-chair.

Other members are Justice Minister Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls, Ont.), also attorney general and responsible for other intelligence aspects of policing, security and prosecutions; Defence Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.), who is directly responsible for the government’s main electronic eavesdropping and intelligence system, the Communications Security Establishment, and also is responsible for defence department intelligence services; International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda (Durham, Ont.), responsible for foreign aid delivery through the Canadian International Development Agency; newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.); Immigration Minister Jason Kenney (Calgary Southeast, Alta.), whose department routinely gathers sensitive information abroad and, in its immigration screening, potentially valuable intelligence; and newly appointed Transport Minister Denis Lebel (Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, Que.), whose department is responsible for a range of entry points to Canada, as well as intelligence and information gathering.

“The way he [Mr. Harper] micro-manages things, he’s going to micro-manage that, so we’re going to have Cabinet ministers involved in things they shouldn’t be involved in,” NDP MP Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont.) told The Hill Times. He noted the Commons opposition recently called for more Parliamentary oversight of Canada’s network of intelligence agencies and services, but he said “that’s not Parliamentary oversight, that’s government oversight. I didn’t get an invitation to join that committee, let me tell you.”

While bringing nine new faces into Cabinet in the aftermath of his decisive electoral win, Mr. Harper also beefed up the main Treasury Board Committee of Cabinet with a hefty foursome of ministers who will likely take an aggressive posture toward cuts and spending reductions the government plans. Mr. Harper also added the new sub-committee, chaired by Treasury Board President Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), which will be exclusively responsible for directly supervising the government’s “Strategic and Operating Review” of existing programs and spending.

The panel includes Ted Menzies (Macleod, Alta.,), Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s (Whitby-Oshawa, Ont.)lieutenant as minister of state finance, and five ministers who are either responsible for several departments that could be significantly affected by the spending review or who are political ministers for key regions and provinces, including Mr. MacKay and Industry Minister Christian Paradis (Mégantic-L’Érable, Que.). Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley (Haldimand-Norfolk, Ont.), who presides over one of the government’s biggest departments with control over billions of dollars in social programs, is on the committee, as is Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.), the former Bay. St. investment dealer and once director of the Ontario Securities Commission. He was one of several high-profile Conservatives who toppled Liberals in all but five of Toronto’s 23 electoral districts.

The main Treasury Board committee, also chaired by Mr. Clement, is made up of Mr. Flaherty, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove, Alta.), Bernard Valcourt (Madawaska-Restigouche, N.B.), Minister of State for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and a former Cabinet minister in the Brian Mulroney government of the 1980s who defeated Liberal Jean-Claude D’Amours on May 2; Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), who in the past year delivered speeches outlining his conservative preferences for government; and and Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.), the former minister for seniors and once head of the Ontario Provincial Police.

“This tells me they’re going to move and they’re going to move quickly,” John Gordon, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told The Hill Times. “This is a signal they are looking at programs that provide services, and they are going to cut, and they won’t be able to do what they’ve said they will through attrition.”

The government said prior to the election it intended to find $11-billion in savings over the next four years, but Mr. Flaherty has given conflicting signals both about how that will be done and whether the goal of a balanced budget by 2014 is possible.

Senator Marjory LeBreton, government leader in the Senate, attempted to fend off questions from members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery over the Senate appointments, which were disclosed only moments after Mr. Harper concluded his brief news conference following the Cabinet shuffle and returned inside Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence, to mingle with the Cabinet ministers.

Reporters referred to the longstanding Conservative promise to reform the unelected Senate and questioned whether the return of Senators Smith and Manning indicated the government did not respect the will of voters who rejected them on May 2.

“We do respect the will of Canadians,” Senator LeBreton said, arguing the government intends to move ahead with Senate reform now that it has a majority.

Other than Mr. Oliver, newly elected MPs Mr. Harper brought into Cabinet were Peter Penashue (Labrador, Nfld.), the only Conservative elected in Newfoundland and Labrador who became Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs; Bal Gosal (Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Ont.), who defeated former Liberal MP Navdeep Bains and became Minister of State for Sport; and Alice Wong (Richmond, B.C.), who became Minister of State for Seniors.

Mr. Harper brought Mr. Bernier back into the inner circle after he resigned as foreign affairs minister in 2008 over losing secret NATO documents at a girlfriend’s home. Three of the other five remaining Conservative MPs elected in Quebec also are in Cabinet, including Mr. Lebel, Mr. Paradis and Steven Blaney (Lévis-Bellechase, Que.) who became Veterans Affairs Minister.

Mr. Harper also brought Tim Uppal (Edmonton-Sherwood Park, Alta.) into Cabinet as Minister of State for Democratic Reform and Ed Fast (Abbotsford, B.C.) in as Minister of International Trade. Steven Fletcher (Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia, Man.), formerly in charge of democratic reform, became Minister of State for Transport. Peter Van Loan, former international trade minister, took over for Mr. Baird as the Government House Leader.


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