The declaration by former Harper regime Cabinet minister Chuck Strahl that he agrees the government should list asbestos as a carcinogen is a welcome one, but it’s also a highly suspicious one. It’s public knowledge (if not widely disseminated public knowledge) that Strahl has been through the ringer on this. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the run-up to the 2006 election. The doctors were wrong on only one of those three words, and he beat incredible odds to be with us today. The cancer, known as mesothelioma, was caused by years of asbestos exposure from when Strahl worked in the lumber industry.
So as happy as I am to see someone beat cancer, and as happy as I am to see someone support taking steps to restrict asbestos use, I’m troubled by Strahl’s announcement. This man was a Cabinet minister in the Harper regime for years — something, incidentally, that this article bizarrely makes absolutely no mention of. The Harper government has supported the criminally dangerous asbestos industry that whole time, ranging from barricading previous versions of the international hazardous chemicals agreement now being debated all the way to attempting to suppress a Health Canada report establishing that asbestos did, in fact, cause cancer. Where was Strahl back then? Sleeping?
I raise this point not just because Strahl suffers from asbestos-linked cancer himself. No doubt he would say that concerns about personal health and running the country are two separate things and that a responsible minister has to look at things from a broader perspective, and no doubt that’s true. But, while Strahl was one of the rare people to occasionally break ranks on the bipartisan consensus (Liberals and Conservatives are united behind the principle that we do not talk about asbestos, we do not ban asbestos, and we do not care about Indian lives ended by Canadian asbestos), unless I am mistaken, he never once saw the need to chastise the government for behaving with all the self-serving ethical maturity of the tobacco industry back when he was in the government.
There is a basic confusion in Ottawa about where politicians’ loyalties lie. Strahl is one unfortunate example of this, but there are others. Recently an association of former MPs sponsored an important set of studies in which they argued that political parties were corrupting the political process, drowning out meaningful debate, and basically running government as an arbitrary backroom boys’ club. In the most egregious example yet, Senator Bert Brown recently argued to his Conservative colleagues in the Senate that they have a duty to support electoral reform because they owe their jobs to Harper, and Harper supports Senate reform.
Now, I happen to agree with all three positions on offer: I don’t like asbestos, I don’t like partisan hackery replacing political substance, and I support Senate reform. But all of these politicians and former politicians are wrong, and the former ones are at least a small bit hypocritical. The reason is simple. MPs represent their constituents, and Senators represent the Governor-General. Absolutely nobody in Parliament is constitutionally bound to answer to the Prime Minister. In fact it’s the other way around: the Prime Minister is by convention required to answer to Parliament, and to maintain its confidence at all times.
Hence the reason that prime ministers support strong political parties. Especially hypocritical ones like Harper, whose thoughts on prime ministerial democracy before becoming prime minister can be found quoted at the top of this website. Once he tasted power himself, Steve started singing a different tune on that, possibly because he saw the light, but more likely because he is a shallow, corrupt, irresponsible cretin, as is also illustrated by his ridiculously two-faced approach to climate change (yes it’s real, but no we won’t agree to do anything about it).
I realize that in everyday politics, MPs answer to their party. But that is precisely my point. They know their job descriptions. Senators’s appointments are declared by the Governor-General, not the Prime Minister, and it’s not just because the Prime Minister was busy that day. MPs actually have their obligations listed in their job titles: Chuck Strahl, before he retired, was not the Conservative MP, he was, the Member of Parliament for Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon. All of the MPs in this group of ex-MPs whining about partisan corruption of politics had similar titles. They worked for us. They were paid handsome salaries and promised handsome pensions. They had, for most of them, the largest public profile they will have in their lives.
So you’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly impressed when, after they retire, they come crawling out of the woodwork to begin issuing complaints that they couldn’t bother to defend while they were actually working for us, which apparently bother them now much, much more than back when their words and actions might have made a real difference. I’m left haunted by the possibility that while principle matters to them now, paycheques and promises of promotion mattered more.
It’s past time we recognized that political parties are non-governmental organizations just like any other. And when any other such organization promised an MP more money, more perks, or more power in exchange for voting a certain way on a bill, we would call that corruption, and rightly so. The same logic must apply to the odious facade known as party discipline.Tweet