The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson


Fox In The Henhouse

My Huffington Post piece on Julian Fantino’s appointment as the new minister for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) created something of a stir, mostly for a couple of reasons.

Usually I don’t write such strongly worded blog posts as I did on this occasion. While I was an MP, I had the official role in the shadow cabinet of Critic for International Cooperation for the official opposition. That basically meant that I was to help oversee and respond to developments that resulted from the government’s actions on CIDA. It was an important file at the time because Canada was to host the G8 summit in Toronto and Muskoka and the Harper government wanted to make CIDA’s efforts regarding child and maternal health for women a key plank of its efforts.

I was obviously selected for that role because of my international experience. I underwent some criticism for placing the health of CIDA itself above the normal partisan practice of critics just lambasting the government for anything it did. However, CIDA and its personnel meant a lot to me and I knew the organization was going through a disillusioning time. I wrote a book on CIDA, its future, and its importance to Canada’s international influence that you can see here. So, when I read of Fantino’s selection as the Agency’s new minister, I understood well enough that the morale in the organization would sink to new levels. One person wrote me on Twitter yesterday, disappointed that I would judge Fantino’s performance before he even had started the job. But in Parliament people quickly establish track records, histories of performance good or bad. Fantino had been our police chief here in my home town of London years ago and then went on to become Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner – a time in which he clearly established himself as a hard-nosed leader. As soon as he entered Parliament following his by-election win a couple of years ago, he continued in the same pattern. This is his trademark and he occasionally boasts of it. There is no reason to assume he’ll be any different at CIDA. In fact, it’s that reputation that has caused numerous writers and journalists to question the Prime Minister’s motives for the appointment.

The second reason some of the blog readers grew upset was the title of the piece – Julian Fantino – An Ego Too Big For The Job. It was a valid criticism, with many feeling that such a tone didn’t really reflect my normal tone as a writer. I agreed, but reminded them that I don’t select the titles for my submissions. I immediately wrote the Huffington Post and expressed my concern, informing them that although I have appreciated the opportunity they afforded for me to write for them, I felt the tone of my pieces was just as vital to me as the content and that I wouldn’t continue unless we could work out some kind of arrangement.

I was impressed when they got back to me immediately, explaining their reasons for the title selection, but saying they understood and that they would change it upon my request. I send in a new title I thought more appropriate and a short while later it was changed. I want to thank the Huffington Post for showing that kind of flexibility.

Whoever oversees the leadership of CIDA has to have a deep understanding of the intricacies of foreign aid in some of the most troubling and destitute areas of the world. Over the last couple of decades, CIDA has had some good leaders and some inept ones, but never has it been led by someone with Fantino’s modus operandi. I spoke with some CIDA folks a couple of days ago who feel this might be the beginning of the end for the Agency. Regardless of whether that is true, Fantino’s appointment has nothing to do with experience and everything to do with politics, and to be so blatantly political over a file that is to see to the spirit and bodies of millions of destitute people around the world is only to damage our international reputation even further. It was a poor selection. For the moment at least, CIDA requires female leadership, preferably someone with international development experience. The Prime Minister instead opted for the Alpha male profile. It put the fox in the henhouse and perhaps the death knell in the Agency, whose personnel are some of the best in the world. CIDA required a champion not a chief and now must live with a selection bound to take it through more difficult days ahead.

Troubles Ahead For CIDA

The following is my Huffington Post piece for today on the appointment of a new minister for the Canadian International Development Agency. It’s the wrong choice at the precisely the wrong time and spell difficulties ahead for all the dedicated folks at CIDA.

Note: My apologies for the title on the Huffington Post piece. It was no my choice.

Official international development assistance for the world’s poorest countries has become a precarious business in recent years. If the first five years of the last decade were seen as a time of foreign aid and development renaissance – debt relief, Millennial Development Goals, movement towards more aid accountability – the last five years became the decline of most of these important activities. Then with the arrival of the world economic turndown, advanced governments began the inevitable process of concentrating on the home front at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable and all those promised commitments.

Yet within the international development arm of most of these governments were keen and dedicated professionals who understood the complexities of foreign aid and sustainable development. Certainly they had to learn to do more with less, but in most cases they remained committed to a better and more fair world in a time of deep dislocation. Such individuals hold certain qualities that best reflect the more humanitarian nature of each of their respective countries.

  • A natural compassion
  • A willingness to cooperate with others in the field
  • A deep understanding of the link between development and the environment
  • A refusal to adopt ideological and simplistic arguments or points of view
  • A growing comprehension of the primary importance of the role of women as the key change agents in their respect communities in the developing world.

There are many more, naturally, but these are key traits, building blocks upon which to create and support integrated programs.

Sadly, Canada has just sent a signal to the international aid community that decades of lessons learned now mean little in terms of government policy. The announcement this week that former police chief and Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino will assume ministerial responsibilities for the Canadian International Development Agency hasn’t so much sent a shiver through the entire CIDA network as a deep and abiding freeze.

Fantino earned his reputation as a hard-nose – a take-no-prisoners hardliner who frequently preferred the stick to the carrot. It would be like putting Donald Trump in charge of a micro-enterprise initiative among the poor of Haiti – the consequences will be devastating because the need to be in charge will surely eclipse the need to be smart.

For CIDA, the move will likely be the final straw for a group of dedicated professionals who hung in there with the organization because of their ultimate commitment to the world’s destitute – a number now growing exponentially each year. Say what you want about former CIDA minister Bev Oda, she made sincere attempts to connect with those she met on many of her on-site visits.

In so many ways this is the key failure regarding Stephen Harper’s appointment of Fantino. The Harper government made great fanfare of their commitment to the world’s poorest women and girls. Putting an aggressive former cop over that noble pursuit will now set Canada’s reputation as a compassionate nation back even further.

Difficult days lie ahead for CIDA. It is about to be hollowed out from the inside – not just by executive blindness, but by the loss of the very people who understand about development in the first place. They will now begin making their way to other organizations, realizing that you can’t oversee an accountable and compassionate government agency when a Prime Minister selects someone more interested in domestic partisanship than international cooperation.

CIDA had already opted to freeze its assistance rates for five years before making even more cutbacks. A Harper government that should be credited for raising assistance rates in its first few years, has now cut it all away – including the persevering commitment of CIDA staff. It’s hard to imagine a move that could have sent so many negative effects as Fantino’s appointment. It won’t be too much of a stretch to change the organization’s name to the Canadian International Detective Agency. Our official compassionate days are now clearly in our past.

Before Japan there was …?

Climatologists continue to alert us that natural disasters are destined to increase substantially as a result of our planet heating up through climate change. We can attempt to deny it but the evidence continues to pile up. And now here we are again on the outside looking in on the worst disaster to hit Japan since World War Two. We are staggered at the video, horrified by the personal stories, terrified at the force of nature. We are a generous people and at the same time our eyes witness tsunami images we are reaching for our wallets to do our own little part for recovery.

There is only one problem with this scenario: we’ve been through it before – a little over a year ago in fact. As Japanese tragedy preoccupies our thoughts, we little realize that the it has already eclipsed Haiti. Citizens, media, governments – have largely moved on. Tragically, Haitian residents can’t.

I spoke with one of the island’s medical doctors this past week and he can sense we are losing our focus. “Our people can’t forget,” he uttered sadly, “how can we?” Indeed. In just 35 seconds about 300,000 people died and more than one million desperate people in three cities became homeless in an instant. “We will need help for years,” he concludes sadly.

The massive attention focused on relief efforts had a certain “slam-dunk” aspect to them. Bill Clinton got involved, the UN, even the likes of actor Sean Penn – the array of support was impressive. The trouble is that failure – international and Haitian – followed quickly. By the time former Governor General Michelle Jean visited her homeland on the first anniversary, she could only weep at the lack of progress. “Official commitment have not been honoured,” she observed not even two months ago, adding, “Only a miniscule portion of what was promised has been paid out. The Haitian people feel abandoned.”

What do we say to this? We were generous, remarkably so. Didn’t she just go a little over the top with her statement? Or was she correct?

However we see it, there are some lessons to be learned from the Haitian experience. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Canadians were generous, donating millions of dollars in a time of recession. The Harper government was on the ground quickly, seeking opportunities to apply Canadian generosity.

But there were problems. Following its quick intervention, significant confusion resulted and Canadians rightfully wondered where CIDA was applying their matched donations. In Parliament, a year later we are still attempting to acquire information as to our ongoing governmental response. Has it been successful or not? Despite certain accounts of success, we just don’t know and perhaps some kind of official assessment would be helpful.

In our compassionate moments of observation concerning the struggle of the Haitian people, we perhaps blindly overlooked how that country’s own administration and laws have stolen the recovery right out from under the international community’s collective nose.  Corrupt officials lined their own pockets with aid largesse instead of channeling the resources to their own struggling people. This is the way things had been prior to the earthquake and there was no way such malfeasance could be ferreted out in time to develop and effective relief response.

At the Foreign Affairs Committee recently we heard from Red Cross officials how the lack of a proper land registry system has resulted in huge disputes over territory. Just as aid agencies erect shelters, three or four families come along stating that the land is historically theirs. The shelters then have to be taken down and a suitable place found elsewhere. How can an effective response proceed when such obstacles are strewn along the path?

These are difficult truths to digest and they will only discourage us if we don’t plan for the long-term. A portion of the 10-year plan for recovery concerns administrative reform and the development of an equitable system of land registry. It will take years. Michelle Jean failed to mention the devastating part Haitian officials have played, yet she was on to something when stating that perhaps people have forgotten the struggling people of the island. Both Haitians and Canadians will have to undertake the kind of international development that can be painfully slow but is capable of building the kind of foundation required for true recovery. If we remember to do it, that is.

The Rock of Integrity

Came to bed but couldn’t sleep, my thoughts filled with Jim Travers, the terrific journalist from the Toronto Star, whose sudden passing today infused Ottawa with a sense of tragedy. So many wonderful things are being said about him that my thoughts will pale in comparison. But my insights are those of a struggling politician whose load became more defined and lightened by the man we have just lost.

Jim was accompanying my wife and I on our trip to Sudan this past January until the sudden death of his mother forced him to remain behind to settle her estate. Many never knew he had actually lived in Juba, south Sudan earlier in his career and that his fascination, and sometimes tribulation, over the continent’s fate often preoccupied his thoughts. We would share a lunch at the Parliament Pub together every few weeks and his questions were all about Africa and the state of affairs in Ottawa itself. Our last meal together was just three weeks ago.

Jim (left) receiving one of his many awards

This noted journalist had first asked me to lunch two years ago to see if, in his own words, “you are real.” I was, as was he, and our relationship sprang from that moment. It was never a deep friendship – others knew him far better than I – but I was always aware that he took this novice politician under his wing for a reason. He instinctively sensed when I was struggling and inevitably there would come the call asking for lunch. In my four years in Parliament, he was the only journalist I knew who understood international development and bemoaned with deep sincerity the decline of CIDA as a powerful instrument of Canada’s collective compassion. Whereas others often queried me about the Agency, looking for a story, Jim would convey what he had heard from some good contacts within the organization and continued to encourage me to stay on the path I was on of defending CIDA against the naysayers. He never pressed me for an angle or an exclusive story because, in truth, he possessed far greater contacts for that. No, in many ways he was trying to make government better through his encouragement of my efforts, meagre though they have been.

In many ways, Jim Travers reminded me of Mario Lague, the Liberal communications staffer who did so much to bring not just a sense of order to Michael Ignatieff’s office, but a sense of respect, professionalism and a firm belief that honesty was the best way forward. They were both straight-up and there was some kind of strength resident in them. They could have switched roles and the result would have been the same: fair play, integrity, wit and a sense of public responsibility. My wife and I, along with Susan Delacourt, Jim’s associate, had dinner with Mario three days before he died tragically in a motorcycle accident last summer. I was devastated then, as I am now, three weeks after dining with Jim.

I have to be truthful and state that I worried about his growing skepticism about the political order in Canada. Something was stirring deep with him in these last few years that was troubling his spirit. And I think I know what it was, at least in part. He expected politics to at least be real. Seasoned though he was in the hypocrisy and vanity of much that can come to define Parliament, he always believed that there was decency and a sense of public purpose running through its hallowed halls. But as he experienced more and more difficulty locating the better angels of the House, and Ottawa in general, he grew increasingly agitated and I could sense the frustration in his writings.

He was also impatient with his own industry. When a year ago Christmas an article appeared in his own paper with erroneous facts about a meeting I had with some other MPs, he phoned me the next day, livid that no sources had been quoted or that the MPs were never given a chance to respond. I never forgot that. When he apologized for the treatment we had received, it was enough. My anger at the worst of journalism had been totally transcended by the best of it. As he witnessed Ottawa descend into a kind of endless lunacy, he laid much of the blame on the shallowness of a media that was more interested in a story than what it really meant.

Every time I wanted to move on from politics, this gracious man wouldn’t hear of it. He reminded me that politics and journalism required real people, humans of intellect and understanding. “You must stay,” he would assert, “you got elected to serve, just keep at it honestly.” For all my ineffectiveness, I am still in my role in large part because a very special journalist didn’t just believe in me but in the best of Parliament.

As we parted three weeks ago, he gave me a copy of a book he treasured and we shook hands. “Don’t let them break you, Glen. Just stay on your path.” We parted and I’ll never see him again in this life. But I couldn’t sleep tonight because I was realizing that the journalistic integrity housed in Jim Travers is the rock upon which politics and journalism alike will break themselves unless both strive for a new dynamic of respect, transparency and honesty. He might be gone, but that legacy remains and much of the future will be judged by its influence.

Can Canada Afford Democracy?

Six months – even two months – ago, if pundits or politicians were asked, “If a scandal were to descend upon Ottawa, in which ministry do you think it would occur,” no one would have concluded CIDA or that its rather reclusive minister would be on the front page of every newspaper in the land. Ask any Canadian what the acronym “CIDA” itself stands for and you’ll merely get a shrug. Yet for all the anonymity, the swill surrounding the Canadian International Development Agency is threatening to peel back the layers of the present management of this country, revealing its threat to Canadian democracy.

While the issue around the funding of KAIROS seems to have suddenly descended on a troubled capital, it’s a story more than two years old. It was in 2009 that KAIROS officials revealed their funding might be in jeopardy. A normally sane relationship with CIDA officials suddenly seemed cross-wired, with bureaucratic officials seeming at odds with their political masters. MPs from all opposition parties spent the better part of a year attempting to pry out of the government why it was eventually cut, only to be stonewalled at every level. The Harper government determined that it just wasn’t going to be responsible to the parliamentary system and, frustrating as it was, the story died. All attempts at an open accountability faded, as is the way these days. That was until Embassy magazine, through an Access to Information request, located a document with the word “not” superimposed on it and all hell broke loose.

The KAIROS story, being that it involved a little known government agency and an even lesser-known development organization, is telling because it reveals just how far partisan intransigence goes when it’s tentacles can even reach an obscure government agency. We’ll never know for certain, but it’s likely that the Harper ideology, which resents what it feels is left-wing wrong-headedness, has bled into even the far corners of the bureaucracy – the PMO in “full-court press.” What we do know is that a growing number of the bureaucrats in all departments deeply resent their own researched conclusions being overturned. How can we be certain? Because they communicate their displeasure through back channels to media and MPs alike. That trickle of information has now become a brook and is likely to become a raging river if they continue to be undermined in their work. They have interests to protect just like everyone else, and at times their defensive protection puts them on the wrong side of an issue, but the infestation of all things political into the efficient running of federal departments is now a pandemic, crossing over the entire breadth of government.

This is the key issue surrounding the Oda story – the fulcrum upon which the rest is teetering. It’s about the very essence of Parliament itself and what it means to the future of Canada. When Stephen Harper rose in the House last week to defend his CIDA minister, claiming she did the right thing, what he meant was that he not only agreed with her decision but with the process by which it was reached. It was a mean-spirited fusillade, condescending, stubborn and perhaps contemptuous of Parliament itself, in which the ideological end justified the hyper-partisan means. It was easy in QP to see that he was perturbed that an issue he thought he had successfully put to bed months previous had now been resurrected through a pesky media and a prying opposition.

Parliament exists at the will of the people, but can only remain relevant and accountable through the attention of the people. It demands citizen diligence and holds the voting booth as that one place where those affected by policies, good or ill, can place any prime minister or MP in the docket of the public will. Canada has a rich and lengthy history of humanitarian intervention around the globe, but at present political meddling through overriding the parliamentary system itself is front page news. Are citizens concerned? Some are clearly angry, but likely not a critical mass. And so even though the media has done an admirable job at peeling back the onion on this story for us, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, along with vigilant MPs, are attempting to bring accountability into a secret society of decision-making, no public scrutiny or punishment appears imminent.

When modern society reaches the stage where state secrecy and perhaps contempt can continue unchecked by the citizen, then we have a democracy that can’t sustain itself because it’s ultimately the voter that makes the difference. Today it’s KAIROS, tomorrow it might be healthcare or financial accountability. Put simply: Canada can’t afford a democracy that eventually leads to secrecy and a social kind of censorship. Over the course of this week we’ll consider this matter in more detail, but for now the KAIROS incident should remind us that if the government can get away with it on this relatively minor file and department, then public accountability and attentiveness is hardly at the level required to keep a modern and open democracy functioning efficiently.

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