Stephen Harper doubles down -

Stephen Harper doubles down

Why the PM chose not to come clean on the Senate scandal


Stuart Dryden / Calgary Sun / QMI Agency

Reviews for Stephen Harper’s Nov. 1 speech to the Conservative party convention in Calgary haven’t been great. So let’s play it according to the advice Harper was getting beforehand. Imagine he had decided to come clean about the Senate spending scandal. How would that have gone?

If he had been in a confessional mood, the Prime Minister would have moved quickly past the relatively easy questions. Why, for instance, did he think Mike Duffy would make a good senator for Prince Edward Island? After warming up on that stumper, he would have moved on to the hard stuff.

At some point, then, he would have had to try to explain to 2,000 Conservative delegates how it came to pass that on Friday, May 17, the Prime Minister’s then-communications director, Andrew MacDougall, came to convene reporters to an on-the-record briefing at the National Press Theatre.

May 17 was an interesting date. Two days earlier, CTV News had revealed that Nigel Wright, Harper’s then-chief of staff, had written a $90,000 personal cheque to cover Duffy’s disputed housing expenses. And it would be another two days before Wright would announce his resignation. (And nearly six more months before Harper would begin telling talk radio hosts that Wright had not resigned but had been fired. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

On May 17, then, Nigel Wright was still on the government payroll as the Prime Minister’s hand-picked, cheque-writing, naughty-senator-bailing-out chief of staff. And Andrew MacDougall summoned reporters so he could explain to them that this was an excellent state of affairs.

Mac Harb, a Liberal-appointed senator, and Patrick Brazeau, appointed as a Conservative on the same day in 2008 when Duffy was called to his red-chamber reward, were both resisting paying back their disputed expenses, MacDougall told reporters. “If you’re looking at the scorecard, there’s one for three senators that returned money to the taxpayers of Canada that was improperly claimed,” MacDougall said, adding that “the overarching imperative was to get that money returned, as it now has been returned.”

On his way to Calgary last week, Harper was telling anyone who would listen that he was shocked at Wright’s decision, taken alone and shared with—well, he used to say Wright shared his decision with nobody, but that story won’t stand up any more, so these days he says Wright shared it with “a very few” PMO staffers, and at any rate certainly not with Harper himself.

These days Harper insists he found Wright’s action unacceptable on its face and promptly showed him the door. But the record shows that Harper spent four days sticking up for Wright; that he sent his chief spokesman to hold a news conference holding Wright up as a relative beacon of ethical crisis management; and that Harper had his staff urge other senators to live up to the Mike Duffy standard of contrition.

Some commentators hoped Harper would use his speech to the Conservatives to explain why any of this makes sense. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Harper decided not to rise to that challenge.

The Prime Minister’s twists and turns on the Senate affair would break a snake’s back. There is no explaining them. In the insane hypothesis that Harper had tried to explain them in Calgary, the first question we would have asked afterward is why he waited from May until November to do it. So essaying an explanation now would not really have helped. It’s just a mess, a sinkhole of judgment whose radius is very much larger than the distance between Harper’s office and the one Wright used to occupy. As another former Harper spokesman once said, more than a decade ago and in very different circumstances, “This turd won’t polish.”

So why bother? For a man whose goal is to endure as prime minister long enough to change the country, this question would have occurred to Harper very early. One can imagine him thinking something like this:

“I could try to explain away the behaviour of my appointees and the zigzags in my own response to it. I could spend the next few months talking about the terrible judgment of my plutocrat fixer-in-chief and my TV-star Senate appointee. I could air, in public, questions that will probably be tried in courts of law later, and make spotting the contradictions a national parlour game.

“Or I could talk about some other stuff.”

And so it came to pass that Stephen Harper devoted his 39-minute speech to the delegates to all the things he thinks he’s done right, instead of to the events of May 2013, the second-worst month of his political life. (Until his career ends, nothing will ever top November-December 2008, when he nearly let Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton take his job from him.) Instead of fresh explanations, Harper offered well-worn tales of derring-do: the Universal Child Care Benefit, the GST cuts, the end of the Wheat Board monopoly and of the long-gun registry. Each time Harper played one of the old hits, reporters covering the event rolled their eyes, but many of the delegates in Hall D of Calgary’s BMO Centre felt a little bit better.

Harper reminded the faithful that no Liberal government had done these things, and no NDP government would. This has the advantage of being true. Outside the hall were millions of Canadians who, in many cases, support other parties precisely because of Harper’s position on taxes, daycare, gun control and a hundred other issues. Inside the hall were hundreds who like Harper’s stance on these files, and may have needed reminding.

The whole weekend was a kind of pageant, a defiant announcement that Harper will double down, and double down again, before he will ever apologize. The party’s chief bagman, Sen. Irving Gerstein, told delegates he was a bagman. Delegates told me they worried the party is too autocratic, and when I asked a senior party official what he made of Saturday’s policy debates, he said, “I haven’t really been paying attention.”

Reporters were cooped up in a filing room without potable water or free WiFi. Three of the convention’s four halls were closed to reporters for the duration, and when we ventured past an imaginary line on the floor of the fourth, volunteers in blue pushed us back. After his speech, Harper and his band played classic-rock hits at a casino next to the convention centre; reporters were barred.

In its details, this cheerful contempt was an extension and refinement of the treatment Harper used to reserve for the press corps. As late as 2011, I could walk around on the floor of a Conservative party convention at leisure and unharassed. The Conservative party had meetings to decide how much further to tighten the cordon sanitaire, appointed staffers to enforce it who might have been given other tasks. A few Harper supporters will be delighted to hear we were denied our “perks,” as if water and freedom of association are luxuries. Here again, Harper was just being Harper. It’s worked for him for nearly a decade. He won’t stop now.

When it was over, Conservatives went back to Ottawa, where the Senate voted to suspend Duffy, Brazeau and Pam Wallin. When the next election comes, Harper will be able to say he repealed the long-gun registry, negotiated free trade with Europe, and docked the naughty senators’ pay as soon as he could. And even if the last of those three announcements is a gentle fib, it’ll still win applause. Now as always, Stephen Harper will do this his way.


Stephen Harper doubles down

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • there are always enough idiots on the right to vote for Harper.

    • I can never figure out how to break it to guys like this that I make a lot of money writing books about Harper. The second somebody else becomes prime minister, I lose my corner on the market.

      • You can always do a nostalgic look back at the good times of the Harper years — hindsight through a nice fuzzy filtered light.

      • I’m certain there will be years of writing to expose what Harper has actually done to this country and its democratic institutions, once he is out of office.

      • A job similar to the nightsoil man in “Animal Farm “, bless you.

      • Perhaps a little friendly business advice? Diversification is a good thing.

  2. My view on Well’s stupid article

    At first, I thought this was just the Maximum Harper piece re-titled by an editor to get a few more hits. However, although all of the ideas correspond, Wells has used nuance and emotion to pull out an entirely different tone.

    One article played to two audiences must mean more booksales…
    I do enjoy it when art and $ come together.

    • To your point: I am noticing more and more articles being retitled and posted again here at MacLean’s.

      • My view on Well’s brilliant article

        At first, I thought this was just the Maximum Harper piece re-titled by an editor to get a few more hits. However, although all of the ideas correspond, Wells has used nuance and emotion to pull out an entirely different tone.

        One article played to two audiences must mean more booksales…

        I do enjoy it when art and $ come together.

  3. 2 words: Drunken Stupor!

  4. Mike Duffy’s email chain is now in the hands of the RCMP and most likely just ended the last of Harpers credibility.
    Time to go to jail Steve.
    Couldnt have happened to a more deserving guy.
    Tyrant jig is up.

    • Get over yourself.

    • Dude, that’s pure fiction.

  5. In organizational behaviour, Harper’s stubborn and tenacious pursuit of a failing strategy is called continuance commitment. It’s like continuing to throw dollars down a money pit (house, car, boat) because you’ve already got so much money invested in it. After a certain point, the rational decision to simply cut one’s losses ceases to be an option.

    In short, it’s already too late for Harper to change his story.

  6. An interesting, if deeply flawed analysis. I can’t believe I’m quoting Rob Ford here, but Mr. Wells is asking the wrong question. Or maybe he’s asking the right question, but for the wrong time period.
    In any case, the right question is why Harper didn’t come clean. But the time frame for that question is why didn’t Harper come clean on what happened before May 15. Why exactly did a very smart man like Nigel Wright do something so utterly stupid that it cost him his job, is exposing himself to a possible criminal investigation (as per the RCMP requesting Duffy emails for possible “criminal wrongdoing by others”), has left his government consumed by scandal, and has seriously undermined the credibility of his former boss, making him look like a liar. Nobody has ever said Nigel was a stupid guy. And neither, apparently, are others in the PMO. Nigel et. al would have known the risks of what he/they were doing. And yet, we’re told one or more of them concocted this hair-brained scheme over a period of months, and nobody asked the question, “What happens if a really nosy reporter finds out about this?”
    Now, even if we assume Nigel Wright (along with everyone else in the PMO who was involved) is as stupid and corrupt as Harper now says he is, then why not come clean for goodness sakes? Coming clean would mean he’d reveal everything he now knows about the saga, including any documents, and put the whole thing on Nigel and Duffy, ridding himself of the scandal in the process. So why not come clean? Why would Harper intentionally leave the scandal as is on himself and his government, and make Duffy and Wright look more credible by comparison? Why all the denials and stonewalling and revisions of history? Why would Harper intentionally make himself look like a liar?
    The why question is the key, but not on Harper’s behavior after May 15. Rather, on Nigel’s behavior before this date. In my analysis at least, there’s only one answer that makes any sense. They’re hiding something big. And revealing that “something”, they figure, would do more political damage than the beating they’re taking now.

    • I reached the same conclusion some time ago now, and given the amount of corrosion damage this is doing to Harper’s personal brand as well as his government’s, and how zealously he has acted to protect that brand in the past, what is being concealed/protected must be especially dangerous to him. At first I just thought it was just Harper being Harper, but these days I am very much wondering if this doesn’t go back to how extensively Duffy was being used in the last election campaign, how much was billed to the Senate that might properly should have been to the Party (and therefore went over the limits legally allowed, a refinement on the In and Out scheme of 2006 of which the CPC was found guilty of), and that it was something that was obvious to the Party and to Harper’s office itself thereby showing a pattern of behaviour to corrupt an election and therefore could arguably make his win and therefore his government a truly illegitimate and arguably illegal one.

      If not that though it would have to be something on that level of severity, and that would also explain why Wright et al were willing to run the risks they had to know they were running in paying off Duffy’s bill in the first place. There is NO WAY I buy the idea that Wright and company did not understand exactly how dangerous this course of action was, not just to them personally but to Harper and the government/party, which is also why I believe Harper was in the loop. I can’t see a decision of this nature being taken without his approval because of those risks, especially not in a party/government so tightly controlled by Harper personally as his record has shown to be the case.

      Most people have forgotten this fact, but we owe a Liberal Senator thanks for causing this scandal to be exposed, it was the minority Lib member on the three person subcommittee within Internal Economy that refused to give unanimous consent to accepting the original whitewashed version of Duffy’s expences. If he had not done that the report would have been automatically accepted and the file closed out with none of this coming to light as it has, and Canadians owe that Lib Senator a great deal of thanks for that action. Indeed, at this point I think he is the only remaining member of that subcommittee since the other two have had to resign since then, the chair Tchatchuk (sp) and Stewart-Olson.

      Getting back to the main point though is that Harper had left himself no choice but to act as he did at the CPC convention, there is no good explanation for his and his Office’s behaviour both before My 15 and after and he knows it, otherwise he would have used it already. Harper has to blame everyone else under the sun, misdirect everything he can, throw out whatever shiny objects he can get his hands on, it is all he has left. I believe that eventually we will find out what was being protected, the only question I have will it be before this government is defeated or after. I hope before because I strongly suspect that whatever it is it is something this government and PM deserves to have as a part of his governing legacy as a lesson for future party leaders/Prime Ministers of the lines which should not be crossed E.V.E.R.!


      One of the most disturbing and bizarre pieces of political damage control I have ever seen anywhere in my decades of following politics was when in the first days when the Wright payment became public knowledge Harper’s then main political mouthpiece Pierre Pollieve was doing the media rounds explaining how the most honourable Nigel Wright did the most honourable thing for the most honourable thing by protecting the most honourable taxpayers from a debt from that honourable Senator (which they were never going to be on the hook for anyway, that claim on its face was so utterly moronic it takes a special kind of partisan blindness to find it even remotely plausible let alone believable) has honourably incurred showing how honourable all these folks were with a straight face throughout. I’d seen him defend the indefensible before, but that day was a record maker for me, I simply could not believe I was hearing such a defence of what was clearly showing the appearance of a criminal act, namely the influence buying or worse bribery of a sitting Senator by the Chief of Staff to a sitting Prime Minister, something we have no comparison to in our political history a a nation so far as I am aware of. Just explaining that away especially now that Harper claims to have been so outraged he fired Nigel Wright on the spot (as opposed to the months long accepted reluctantly his resignation claim) because it was so obviously a bad thing that was done shows just how far Harper is painted into a corner in terms of trying to explain this away.

      No, all he can do is what he has been doing all along, and at this point I don’t think outside of his most dedicated partisans any Canadian believes Harper’s story on this file regardless of what they admit to publicly. And those that are still publicly saying they accept it and don’t internally must be seething at having their intelligences so insulted by their guy, and I suspect that will have a political impact come the next election, if only by causing a sit at home reaction. So the only reason I can see for Harper to risk inflaming his own base this way to distrust him on so important an issue is that whatever he is hiding he knows would do even greater damage to that base’s willingness to support him than this is doing at the absolute minimum, or even worse could literally bring down his government and even possibly even trigger some sort of Constitutional crisis because of it (such as his government being found to not having proper legitimacy because of an orchestrated plan to taint the election campaign to guarantee his win, something I could see having happened in no small part because of how angry his base was that he failed to get to majority in 2005 and 2008 despite how weakened the Libs had been at that point). There was a clear potential for his leadership to be challenged if he did not finally deliver the majority in 2011, and we all know that those cornered/desperate take actions they otherwise would not. Do I know that this is what is going on, no, but it would explain what we are seeing better than most other possible explanations I can come up with or have seen/heard from others to explain what we have been seeing.


    • No arguments, but what might be hidden might be a simple as a psychopath’s protecting his self-confirming identity cover story.

      • I highly doubt it. It’s tempting try to label a guy as being psychopathic or calling him other names, especially when we’re angry at him, or we can’t figure this out. But that description just doesn’t match with Harper’s previous behavior, or even his current one. Nothing Harper does is by accident. His actions are always calculated and deliberate.
        Remember, Harper has swallowed himself whole on many things when he’s compelled to do so. Climate change used to be a socialist hoax, until suddenly it wasn’t. For more than 4 years, China was a villain, until suddenly it was a friend who should be allowed to invest in the oil patch, and to whom we should export that oil. At the height of the 2008 major recession, the only policy that made any sense was an austerity budget, until 2 months later when it was a stimulus budget. There were never any documents in the PMO related to this scandal, until suddenly there are documents that the RCMP has asked for. And on and on.

        • “His actions are always calculated and deliberate.”

          You mean like James Holmes?

      • I have to agree. The Duffy thing blew up and Harper blundered and blundered badly. Stonewall is all he has now. Ignore the press – nothing new there – and act as if that stuff on his shoe is perfume.

        Duffy has said about all he can say, none of it nice. If he had any more, he would have dumped it by now, trying to save his job. Problem is of course, all the bad stuff would cost him his job. (I agree that his, and Wallin’s electioneering should have been on the party dime and would have pushed them over the top on expenditure.

        Amazing that the party of the underdog, the little guy from the prairies, has raised and spent $300 million over the last 8 years. Far more than any other party ever.

        Giving Harper the credit for the results of a $200 million always on political campaign may be overly generous to his political skill. Like the crooked political machines in New York and Chicago, Harper is running a Tammany political steam roller.

        Rather than moving Canada into the future of politics, he has moved Canada into the dark past of corrupt US politics.

  7. Kudos Mr Wells. “The Prime Minister’s twists and turns on the Senate affair would break a snake’s back”. May I suggest an alternative header: Broke Back Snake Feign.

  8. Flop all too often follows the Flip.

    He did a Flip of sorts, though, as far as reporters’ pre-convention expectations. More of the bird variety.

  9. “Cheerful contempt for the press corps.” That captures it nicely (and it’s more upbeat than ‘deliberate disdain’, my own preference).

    If they’re clever, the Tories (the Senate expenses bungle notwithstanding), they’ll adopt the exact same approach with Justin “Lunch Me, Babe” Trudeau. You can’t demonize fluff, so don’t bother. Maintain the base and it shouldn’t be all that hard to snag another 10% who can’t picture the other two contenders given decision-making powers. This media-churned, mid-term sturm-und-drang nonsense will be forgotten in six months, maybe less if Rob Ford admits to throwing pipe bombs during the G20 riots (while in the midst of a drunken stupor, haven’t we all been there?). For all the umbrage witnessed on these message boards, many are the Harper haters who suspect and fear he’s good until 2019, at least.

    • “…Bungle notwithstanding”, is an oxymoron for these guys don’t’cha think?.No way they can figure out how to make this go away before they step in another landmine. One day they might figure out they put most of the landmines there themselves.

      But your right about one thing, they look less bad when compared to Rob. I guess Harper ought to burn those home videos featuring him and his barbecuing’n fish’n buddy.

      • I’d lay odds someone in the PMO thought the Senate expenses thing could be turned to advantage, but it turned into mercury when they thought they could bluff two media personalities into bowing out quietly. What should worry the Tories isn’t the Senate tempest but the far more lasting damage to the ‘competence’ image (moot point though it might be for those across the aisle) they profess. One would like to think it’s been a learning experience for the kids in the room, but…

  10. My reading comprehension skills are diminishing with old age.
    Does Wells think Harper knew about the Duffy/Wright deal before it became public or not? What does that ‘turd’ quote actually mean?
    I’m wondering if Harper may not be forced into dangerous territory, with people perjuring themselves or destroying evidence on his behalf. If it is all a lie then “double down” has implications.

  11. If Li’l steve was a gemstone , he’d be coprolite !

  12. It’s time the media stop reporting or attending any of Harper’s events., whether it’s for good news or not, make them buy all air and press time. This will put a huge dent in their war chest. It can work two ways, Harper uses the press for all their announcements, the press can use Harper to generate revenues.

    • He also uses our tax dollars for their propaganda commercials for programs that don’t exist.

  13. thanks for the fun Steve, carry on the story for as long as possible. This is awesome Canadian politics. Has dramatic overtones of “Death of a Salesman” to it.

  14. give it up already there PM…you are not convincing anyone that you have had no hand in all this, and that hand was to prevent this from happening..but you are now showing your true colors to Canadian society, and we are the one’s whom have the capability to vote you out of office and your corupt party as well…own up already instead of always passing the buck, do you not have any moral obligation to our country, the one you had sworn to make better…insteady you created omnius bills to steal from the First Nation People, and now to try and break the treaty’s with another bill to take away our education,, and you have single handly signed away our land and waters to the highest bidder, SHAME ON YOU…YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO BE CALL PRIME MINISTER OF A LAND THAT WAS ONCE CALL LAND OF THE FREE, now it is the land of the oppressed…petition this man and his party out of office I say