Diane Francis on Canadian Politics

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Teapot Tempest

Prime Minister Stephen Harper named a “lean and mean” cabinet yesterday devoid of patronage plums to unseasoned rookies.

Controversy over his appointment of a Liberal, who just crossed the floor, and a Quebec lawyer via the Senate have generated some heat but no light. Harper is a guy who picks quality, not tokens or favorites. Stay tuned. This little tempest is very forgettable.

My Feb. 7 National Post column:

The reduction to 26 from 40 is a welcome step in a country where the cabinet has often been the size of Jamaica’s parliament and sometimes populated by persons whose only obvious attribute was loyalty to the PM.

Stephen Harper is a loner, politically speaking, and has chosen a cabinet based on his opinion as to their suitability for the job. That means he will just as easily unseat those who don’t work out and replace them with others more capable.

His appointment of Jim Flaherty as finance minister is welcome. Jim is really smart, hard working and distinguished himself in the financial portfolio in the Mike Harris Tory government.

It’s also really important that Flaherty has a key job because he proved in Ontario that he’s a no-nonsense executive who both inspires, or fires, civil servants who are insubordinate or who insist on answering to other political agendas.

Likewise, Harris cabinet ministers Tony Clement and John Baird have good track records. And Peter MacKay will be a credible and personable Foreign Affairs Minister.

Bottom line is that Canada’s business community should be much relieved at this turn of events. Finally, the country has a “board of directors” that understands and admires free enterprise.

Hopefully, this minority government will have at least 18 months or more to implement some important policies and convince more Canadians that it’s time that the business of Canada was business.

Here are the priorities as I see it:
1. If this government does nothing else it must address the over-taxation of Canadians. The lowering of the GST is a brilliant, progressive form of tax cut which benefits middle and lower income Canadians who spend most if not all of their disposable income and are fully tax on those expenditures. Capital gains taxes and others which enhance capital markets and job creation are also badly in need of reduction.

2. There should not be any in-country bank mergers allowed, but the Tories should open up the banking system to foreigners. Mergers are merely financial engineering exercises which will cause huge job losses and reduce choices available to businesses.

3. Re-create the Department of Manpower and Immigration to insure that newcomers will have required skills which means that all entrants will land jobs immediately. Processes should be revamped so that skilled workers can gain entry within weeks not years.

4. Waiting times are not only a problem when it comes to health care. The Conservative government must force the Departments of Environment, Industry, Transportation and Natural Resources to deal promptly with project requests and decisions. Waiting periods are excessive and unnecessary, often due to anti-business obstructionism inside the civil service. The country must streamline its processes.

5. Public Works, the source of so much corruption, should open up its tendering process internationally and the Requests for Proposal (RFP) process should be eliminated for the most part. Where necessary these should be adjudicated by independent people and results should be completely transparent.

6. Similarly, defence contracts should be transparent and open to the lowest bidder irrespective of what region of the country to avoid the favoritism of the past.

7. This government should also make it a priority to repair the frayed relationship with the Americans in Washington. Of course, their election is a de facto fix. That’s because they get it. The Americans are not there to heckle and bait for some imagined political gain as the Liberals have done.

Most interesting about this election is that Quebeckers voted strongly for a new pro-business party and rejected the statist, socialist Bloc or the patronage-riddled Liberals. The number of ridings where Tories came in as a strong second, bodes well for the possibility of another Tory election win.

But the Tories have to prove they can deliver credible and improved government services.
They also have to demonstrate that Canada can match American living standards, and enhance its social safety net, by shrinking the size of its federal government and making it more efficient and business-like.

To do so, Canada must capitalize on the commodity price boom underway. That means cutting red tape when it comes to starting needed mega projects, whether they be in the tar sands, the arctic or infrastructure such as pipelines, roads or bridges to facilitate the flow of goods south of the border.

It also means mending fences in order to enhance trade opportunities. All over the world.


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