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The privileges of power: a look at Edward Burkhardt and Stephen Harper

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My hero Izzie Stone, the scourge of American politicians, always wished he had coined the heads-up that made Britain's Lord Acton famous: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Last week, in quite different circumstances, two men demonstrated to Canadians the egregious extremes to which power so easily leads.

The first, not surprisingly, is Edward Burkhardt, American chair of the railway company whose train devastated Lac-Megantic. For me, of all Burkhardt's outrageous statements nothing surpasses his public accusation that the train's engineer, Tom Harding, was responsible for the disaster, suspending him without pay. Among the victims of the train derailment, Tom Harding must now be included.

In truth, of course, Burkhardt had no more clue than you or I or Lord Acton how the derailment happened and who might be responsible. Indeed, his own company policies have very pointedly been questioned. Yet he simply invented the culprit, because I suppose that's what rich and powerful people are able to do.

There is in fact a world of critical learning needed to determine how the crash actually happened and how to ensure it never happens again. As the chair of Canada's Transportation Safety Board wisely said, "We hold by the theory that no accident is ever caused by one thing. It's always a series of things and it always involves an organization and how they operate....It never comes down to one individual." Too late for the shattered Tom Harding, I fear.

For my money, the most persuasive early analysis of the tragedy came from Canadian journalist Martin Lukacs writing in the Guardian"The deeper evidence about this event won't be found in the train's black box, or by questioning the one engineer," Lukacs argues. "For that you'll have to look at how Lac-Mégantic was hit by a perfect storm of greed, deregulation and an extreme energy rush driving companies to ever greater gambles with the environment and human life."

Prime Minister Harper is the other powerhouse who showed last week that he knows he can get away with just about anything. First, he named Pierre Poilievre as his new Minister of State for Democratic Reform, an oxymoron by any standard. Globe columnist Lawrence Martin describes Poilievre as "one of [Harper's] most belligerent, thuggish, MPs". Next to the Prime Minister himself, with his obsession about "enemies", no member of this government has demonstrated contempt for the spirit of democracy more than Mr. Poilievre. As Lawrence Martin wrote, this was one of Mr. Harper's well-known "in-your-face moves."

Second, Mr. Harper appointed to the sensitive post of Canadian ambassador to Jordan (with responsibility to Iraq) one Bruno Saccomani, who until that moment was his bodyguard, or, more formally, the RCMP man who headed his security team.

It is surely not too much to expect a Canadian ambassador to know something about the complex world of diplomacy and all that entails. And if you're being assigned to be our country's chief representative in two turbulent countries in a dangerously volatile region, shouldn't you have a soupcon of background in the area? Or is that just me?

Obviously it's not the Harper way. Because Mr. Saccomani, a middle-level Mountie, was in charge of the PM's personal security, the government brazenly peddles him as an expert in security, ready to be an ambassador. What an insult to the intelligence of Canadians and what a slap in the face to the entire foreign service. Personal security and international security are two unrelated universes. Mr. Saccomani seems to have no background in the vast, intricate world of diplomacy, foreign affairs, the Middle East in general or Jordan and Iraq in particular.

By any normative standard, he has not a single qualification for the job except that Stephen Harper trusts him. Or, in Harperlandese, as articulated by Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Saccomani is a "very distinguished individual with a strong record as a professional public servant." In other words, a good bodyguard.

What does this appointment reveal about Messrs. Harper and Baird's ambitions for Canada's role in the Middle East? One possibility is that after seven years in office Messrs. Harper and Baird still have little idea how the world really works and are still making the kind of mistakes that has embarrassed Canada since they won office.

Or, as Daniel Livermore, senior fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, wrote in the Globe and Mail, Canada intends to play no role in the fraught Middle East peace process. "To put the matter bluntly, the government just doesn't care enough about the region or its issues to put experienced people in charge."

Who really knows? But if you have enough power, as both Lord Acton and Izzie Stone understood, you can get away with anything, however dismaying it may be.

Photo: flickr/mostlyconservative

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