Friday, February 2, 2007

Harper roasted after friend handed plum appointment

Vancouver Sun
Harper roasted after friend handed plum appointment

Andrew Mayeda, CanWest News Service
Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2007

OTTAWA The Conservative government is being accused of political cronyism after one of Stephen Harper's oldest and closest friends was named chief of staff to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley.

John Weissenberger, a Calgary geologist who has assisted in several of Harper's election and leadership campaigns, was quietly appointed to the position recently.

''The optics of this are just so terrible that they're almost provocative,'' said New Democrat MP Pat Martin. ''It's that old who-you-know style of politics that just makes Canadians gag, and Harper knows that.''

Weissenberger met Harper in the mid-1980s after moving to Calgary to complete a PhD in geology. Harper, then in his 20s, was working as an aide to former Progressive Conservative MP Jim Hawkes at the time.

According to a biography of the prime minister by author William Johnson, the two soon grew closer, united by their disenchantment with the PC Party under Brian Mulroney.

They immersed themselves in the writings of authors such as William F. Buckley and Friedrich Hayek, honing their critique of the Canadian ''planned economy'' and their belief in free-market principles.

''For Stephen, at a turning point in his life, John became the companion who accompanied him on a journey of discovery,'' Johnson writes.

''They were to be friends for life. Weissenberger would be closely involved in Harper's future political ventures. And when both had married and become fathers and pursued their separate careers, their families would meet and go off together for a respite from the battles of life.''

In fact, according to the Johnson biography, Harper introduced Weissenberger to his eventual wife, Angela Tu, who was also studying economics at the University of Calgary. Harper was master of ceremonies at their marriage reception in 1990.

Opposition MPs jumped on the appointment of Weissenberger, accusing the Conservatives of breaking their election promise to make merit-based appointments.

In their 2006 election platform, the Conservatives promised to make ''qualified government appointments,'' pointing out the Liberals ''have repeatedly appointed insiders, in some cases completely unqualified, to important public offices.''

''Here's a prime minister who ran on the idea of accountability and transparency, repeatedly contradicting his rhetoric and giving his friends jobs,'' said Liberal MP Omar Alghabra.

He challenged the government to prove Weissenberger is qualified for the position. ''What's his experience on this file? I don't think immigrants are fossils,'' said Alghabra, referring to Weissenberger's training as a geologist.

Martin said the Conservatives appear to be making a series of potentially controversial appointments before implementing the public-appointments commission, an arm's-length body that would review government hirings.

The recently passed Federal Accountability Act contains a provision for the establishment of the commission. Harper launched the commission last summer, only to disband it after the opposition rejected his choice of chairman.

'There's been a flurry, an absolute tsunami of ... appointments since the Federal Accountability Act passed,'' said Martin.

Both Harper and Weissenberger were actively involved in the founding of the Reform Party in 1987. Weissenberger served as campaign chair when Harper was elected as a Reform MP in 1993, then as deputy manager in Harper's successful run for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2001.

The Conservative party website lists Weissenberger as the party's Alberta secretary, but a party spokesman said Monday he has resigned from the post.

Weissenberger could not be reached for comment Monday.

A spokesman for the minister said the office doesn't comment on staffing decisions.

Ottawa Citizen