Saturday, February 20, 2010

In the Shadows. The Boys in the Backroom and Where All the Real Power Lies

In determining how the Harper government operates, I often find myself going back to the years of Mike Harris and Ralph Klein, when the neoconservative movement first gained ground in Canada.

The Reformers had already appeared on the federal stage, but were not yet in control of the country.

Like Stephen Harper's hallowed halls , the power in the Mike Harris government, all took place in the backroom; where most decisions were made by unelected staffers.

There is a rather interesting in depth article on Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Guy Giorno, in the National Post today, where the author, John Ivison; is almost trying to lay the blame for the prorogation squarely on his shoulders.

However, if that's true, than Stephen Harper may be worse than we thought, because it would suggest that he's not a strong leader after all, but a mere puppet for a man with a plan.

In her book *Hard Right Turn, Brooke Jeffrey speaks of Harris and his then policy director, Giorno; who had played an integral part in drafting the Common Sense Revolution:
In a move reminiscent of Brian Mulroney's approach, the premier-designate decided to favour loyalty over experience and dance with the ones that brought him. Despite the fact than none of these young Turks had any experience with government, they were the ones who moved into the premier's office. (Pg. 168)

How would Harris manage without any moderating influence from those around him? Of course, Harris and his team felt there was no need for moderation.

That was precisely what they were trying to avoid. They were highly committed to the neo-conservative agenda, and now they were in a position to do something about it, nothing and no one was going to stop them. The results were predictable. On the one hand, the new guard provided the unifying sense of purpose for the government from the day it took power. (169)

On the other hand, as reporter John Ibbitson concluded, "They would also, in their more strident moments, convey the sense of ideological fervor, of harshness, of lack of compassion or forethought, that would darken the government's record and alienate some of its core supporters."

Giormo was then part of the Tory youth-wing, a group defined by many as "too young to shave."

Guy Giorno himself continued to play a crucial policy role as director of strategic planning. Viewed by ministerial aides as a "true believer who toiled at the centre of the web, he could be rigidly inflexible if departmental initiatives failed to conform to his expectations and/or the CSR priorities. It was not long before he was given the nickname, "Rasputin" by Frank magazine and opposition MLAs.

And like today, he operated in the shadows, almost like a ghost that you never saw but knew was there.

After more three years at Queen's Park, the man whom a departing Ab Campion described as the "intellectual heart" of the Harris government was still unknown to many, including Liberal House Leader Jim Bradley, who allegedly asked to have him pointed out at a Queen's Park Christmas reception.) With an operating style completely opposite to the visible and omnipresent Rod Love's, Giorno managed to
keep the kind of low profile more typical of public servants. His influence, however, appears to be at least as great.

It's also interesting that Harris's legislative assistant, Debbie Hutton, who wielded a lot of power; is now married to Tim Hudak, the hapless new leader of the Ontario Conservatives, and a protege of Mike Harris.

Meanwhile, Deborah Hutton, who remained as the premier's legislative assistant, was given the nickname "Jabba the Hutt" by ministerial aides terrified of her legendary tantrums. One of these aides, like those working for the Conservatives, was willing to be more specific, only on the condition of anonymity. According to the disgruntled staffer, Hutton was and remains "a one-person Blitzkrieg against party morale. She guards her access to Harris jealously, and frequently speaks on his behalf." (170)

And to show just how protected men like Giono are, when (a newly minted patronage senator) Bob Runciman got into trouble a few years back after outing a young offender, in a speech delivered from his office, he was forced to resign from his position as solicitor general, even though the speech itself was written by none other than young Guy:

Speechwriter and whiz -kid Guy Giorno, was protected, the inquiry a point which NDP leader Howard Hampton viewed with considerable scepticism. If this is permitted under the guise of parliamentary privilege he asked pointedly, what else will be encouraged? (186)

If only he knew.

We are seeing the same thing happening with men like Dimitri Soudas. No matter what horrible thing he does, Harper has yet to even respond.

But what we should be asking ourselves is why these unelected people, make so many important decisions; while Harper's elected caucus is not even allowed to talk?

*Hard Right Turn: The New Face of neo-Conservatism in Canada, Brooke Jeffrey, Harper-Collins, 1999, ISBN: 0-00 255762-2

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