Time for adult discourse

One of the main things to know about the so-called Protection of Canada from Terrorists bill that was brought forward in the House of Commons on Monday is that it cannot possibly live up to its title.

One of the main things to know about the so-called Protection of Canada from Terrorists bill that was brought forward in the House of Commons on Monday is that it cannot possibly live up to its title.

Another useful thing to note is that its official author, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, was never meant to be at centre stage of a high-stakes political drama.

Initially scheduled for presentation on the very day when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed the Hill, the bill was designed to expand the power of CSIS spies.

It may or may not have an easier ride in Parliament as a result of the circumstances that delayed its presentation until this week, but it is not the prime vehicle for the government’s post-Oct. 22 policies. That will come later.

If a load of new measures had been thrown in the bill over the weekend, it would have been in the absence of definitive answers as to last week’s events and under the impetus of political post-traumatic shock.

Blaney himself was a walking and talking picture of that shock as he tried to sketch the way forward from the shooting for the media last Friday.

A Quebec minister mostly known for unflinchingly delivering the government line, he was struggling to keep his head above (uncharted) water.

Blaney will never overshadow his boss or even the non-bilingual ministerial colleagues at whose side he routinely appears to deliver some French-language content.

From a political operations perspective, there is little to dislike about this obedient ministerial soldier.

But at a time when a rattled but critical Canadian public is looking to the government for a balanced response to a complex situation, more than a capacity to execute orders is needed.

Over the longer run, it is far from certain that having Prime Minister Stephen Harper front and centre at all crucial stages of the coming debate — in the way that he was last week when he broke the news that a murderous hit-and-run in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu had terrorist undertones — is the way to go to shore up public confidence in the government.

No party, no leader owns the law-and-order issue in the way that the Conservatives and Harper do.

But in this instance, their penchant for punitive legislation inspires as much or more public suspicion as it does confidence.

As prime minister, Harper himself is the lightning rod for that suspicion. No amount of hugging in the House of Commons is likely to overcome it.

As the initial shock of last week’s events wears off, it is becoming increasingly evident that — in the case of this government — the question uppermost in many voters’ minds is not whether it will do enough to make Canada safer from the attacks of extremists but whether it will do too much.

From that perspective, the fact that there was no rush to load an existing bill with on-the-fly security measures is a positive sign.

A demonstrated willingness on the part of the government to engage in an adult conversation with the opposition parties and with Canadians about the post-Oct. 22 country would be another.

After Sept. 11, Jean Chrétien tasked one of his most senior ministers to co-ordinate Canada’s response to the terrorist attacks on the United States.

John Manley’s role involved departmental multi-tasking of a kind that a line minister such as Blaney could not possibly handle.

Part of his brief also involved reassuring both the Canadian public and a watchful American administration as to the purpose and the seriousness of the federal security efforts.

Harper has borrowed pages from Chrétien’s handbook in the past.

He could do worse than appoint a top minister to a Manley-style role.

His cabinet fixer-in-chief Jason Kenney — a senior minister familiar with Canada’s Muslim community, a reputation for getting things done and the capacity to communicate effectively in both official languages — comes to mind.

As a bonus the PMO would not have to write his lines.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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