Sexiest MPs? Have we lost our focus?

I note that the Hill Times today published its annual “Sexy, Savvy and Best Dressed Survey”. The global economy is melting down and this hottie headliner is on lips of Hill staff and media this week. Lest this be a curmudgeon grumble piece on the state of news today (back in my day…), but really, there’s got to be more going on. Yet, the piece does come out in the middle of two break weeks on Parliament Hill, and at least Jane Taber’s belyingly-titled Hot and Not article is about politics.

But in the same issue that we find an a republish of an article by James Travers bemoaning the declining relevance of Parliament as a democratic body — “welcome to court government” — we find out that Rona and Helena have the best hair! I’m now flipping through these pages looking for the stock article on the under-representation of women in Parliament…

Perhaps they don’t want to show up given this superficial focus.

But most of this does amount to political theatre and pollsters will show you charts (with trendlines and error bars, no less) showing that focus groups are somewhat accurate in determining that Stephen Harper wearing a sweater holding a kitten softens his image and improves electability, that Michael Ignatieff needs to shed some ivory-tower arrogance by hitting the hamburger circuit this summer and that Preston Manning needed to ditch the glasses in order to get his message out to more Canadians. Issues and policies also rank lower among concerns among Canadians, but woah, what was he/she thinking wearing that to last year’s Hill Gala?!

Speaking to friends over at, I’m told that last year among the most trafficked articles were those featuring photos of Julie Couillard. In fact, Julie Couillard ranked one of the highest related search terms for Macleans in 2008. In that case, “Julie Couillard”, “Julie Couillard”, “Julie Couillard”.

That said, you won’t find photos of Justin Trudeau or Ruby Dhalla’s leaked Bollywood movie here… but if you came here from Google looking for these things, stick around… I’ll see if I can entice you with a discussion on the finer points of whether provincial- or municipal-linked federal Senate elections better afford Premiers and Prime Ministers the required political cover and feasibility to move forward on reform of our bicameral system.

Hey! Where are you going? Come back!

Oh, all right…

Hot: TMZ and eTalk
Not: New York Times and the Globe and Mail

On the topic of Maxime Bernier’s ex

Scandal period in Ottawa continued today as the Liberal Party, rather than ask questions about policy, grilled the government on their latest tangential interest: Minister Bernier’s ex-girlfriend.

The minister, who was to be shuffled from Industry to Foreign Affairs on a sunny August day last year brought a date when he was sworn in at the usually prim and proper residence of the Governor General, Rideau Hall. Julie Couillard then made headlines for her risqué outfit rather than the headlines she’s making now as the ex-girlfriend of a murdered biker-turned-informant.

Conservative partisans have been quick to dismiss this latest attack by Liberals as none of the nation’s concern, especially as it relates to governance. On the matter of private issues and personal relationships, I would agree. Some Liberals/BQ note that in the nightmare scenario this could have represented a significant security breach. On matters of security, we should always be mindful of such worst-case, though unlikely, hypotheticals. Not that the minister would reveal state secrets, but Bernier – knowingly or not – as some of the more imaginative observers have suggested, may have put himself in a position where he could have been blackmailed. Though, the unaware minister should not be faulted for letting his guard down as he tried to proceed to do what most of us try to do – have a personal life.

Despite this age of Google and Facebook, is one really expected to do this sort of negative vetting of all of their relationships (both potential and actual)? Call me old-fashioned, but any vetting that needs to be done is done during the dating process before two people tie the knot and such vetting is not related matters of national security. Is the minister responsible for the security screening of his dates, or is this the responsibility of those that protect cabinet? PCO has stated that they do not vet family members and spouses let alone romantic interests of cabinet ministers. Therefore, if Canada’s security services would not presume to screen a love interest, what’s the story here beyond politically-motivated hysteria induced by past hypotheticals?

Liberal partisans will latch onto this and show their grave concern for Canada’s national security, but on more broader and existential matters of Canada’s security, they fall silent, or worse, they advocate absurd ideas such as bringing Taliban/al Queda prisoners to Canada to be detained. When you ask Canadians which party is the party they associate with national security, defense and being tough on crime, it is in fact the most overwhelming of answers in focus groups; Canadians by and large choose Conservatives over Liberals on these issues. This is not a winning story for Liberals as Canadians aren’t particularly interested in the secret (private) lives of cabmins.

However, the national media, which is usually loathe to report on the personal lives of Ottawa politicos, is currently experiencing a catharsis of staid Canadian journalistic repression long ago released by their shameless UK counterparts that stain politicians by the barrelful of ink in that country’s tabloids. Therefore, as one seasoned political reporter told me this evening, after this initial brouhaha, the media will focus on other things. According to my journalist friend, this is the ‘one day story’.

Summary questions:
1) Can we reasonably expect our cabinet ministers to negatively vet their personal relationships to the degree that the Liberals demand?

2) How relevant is the past of a personal short-term relationship to the business of government, especially now that it has passed without incident?

3) Any personal relationship can potentially provide loose and exploitable ends at any number of degrees of separation. Does an MPs father have a gambling problem? Did a Minister’s foster brother have connections to a Toronto street gang? Are Denis Coderre and Paul Martin friends of Claude Boulay?

4) If Canada’s security services do not screen or do background checks on all of the past and present relationships of senior cabinet ministers, should they? If it is necessary, cabinet ministers ought to be afforded this level of protection due to their offices, not be liable for the lack of it.

5) Will the opposition start asking the government questions concerning governance?

6) Can we go back to respecting the private lives of politicos? This story hardly merited the breach of what was and should still be an Ottawa news media tradition.

UPDATE: Chantal Hébert writes,

Julie Couillard has no criminal record. She has never been charged with criminal activity and some of Quebec’s crack investigative reporters failed to find evidence that she has had links with bikers since a 1999 divorce.

It is just about unprecedented for a Quebec party to venture into the private life of a political opponent in this fashion. The Bloc, under Lucien Bouchard or even under previous incarnations of a more serene Duceppe, would not have touched a story that so barely passes the test of public interest. Nor, for that matter, would a Liberal party that had not lost its opposition rudder.

But desperate times, it seems, call for desperate moves.

UPDATE: Though it is topical, comments describing or speculating on the unpublished details of the private/social lives of other politicians will not be approved.