The Prime Minister’s explanation once sounded so simple. Confronted last spring by news reports that his then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had cut a $90,000 cheque to cover Sen. Mike Duffy’s dubious expenses, Stephen Harper said it was the first he’d heard about it, and his top aide was soon out of a job. But RCMP documents filed with an Ontario court earlier this month, as part of the Mounties’ ongoing investigation into Wright’s deal with Duffy, paint a much more complicated picture. As high-level Conservatives connived last winter over how to make Duffy’s expense embarrassments go away, Wright emailed Harper’s top communications advisers, telling them, “The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to agree to repay the expenses.”
As these fresh details surfaced, you could almost hear a collective here-we-go-again sigh wash over the country. Long-running scandal serials have become drearily familiar fare in Canadian politics. York University public policy professor Ian Greene tallied 25 episodes from 1984 to 2006—the years when Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and, briefly, Paul Martin were prime minister—of plausible allegations calling into question government ethics. B.C.’s Liberals survived charges of wrongdoing to win a provincial election last spring, and Ontario’s will face a similar challenge whenever their minority falls. The Charbonneau commission feeds Quebecers an almost daily diet of corruption charges. The whole world rubbernecks at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s wreckage. No wonder Canadians are braced for the worst, making Harper’s challenge that much greater.
Michael Atkinson, executive director of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, has studied how Canadians view the apparent prevalence of scandal in their country’s politics. He sees a wide gulf between international norms and domestic attitudes. In his 2011 study, “Discrepancies in perceptions of corruption, or why is Canada so corrupt?”, published in the U.S. journal Political Science Quarterly, Atkinson detailed how Canada regularly scores among the least-corrupt countries according to authoritative rankings like those of the World Bank and Transparency International, and yet polls show about 40 per cent of Canadians believed corruption in their governments was widespread. “International observers rate Canada’s corruption as virtually non-existent,” Atkinson summed up in an interview. “Canadians, on the other hand, see corruption almost everywhere.”
The gap is largely a matter of defining corruption. The international standard focuses on blatant rot, like the need to pay bribes to conduct normal business. But Canadians, according to Atkinson, tend to detect a more insidious malaise, which he describes as “the system itself being perverted in some fashion, turned away from what its purposes and goals should be to some other purposes and goals.” It’s a cynical mindset. “This standard is just not fair in a system like ours—to judge every politician and assume they are working for somebody’s interest other than the Canadian people,” Atkinson argues.
Not that he lets the politicians off the hook. Even if those in power are overwhelmingly not corrupt, he says the typical handling of isolated lapses compounds those problems. “Politicians make things massively worse by trying to cover things up, which extends the narrative for months and months,” he says. Experts in what is often called “crisis management” agree. Robin Sears, a consultant with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, advises governments, corporations and non-governmental groups. He says public officials facing problems with ethical implications should come clean before information emerges through, say, leaks or court filings. “The aphorism,” Sears says, “is you want to get your news out fast and your bad news out faster, because you want to frame the story.”
According to Sears, a common denominator of recent municipal, provincial and federal scandals is that politicians and their advisers seemed to be banking on damaging information remaining secret, which he calls “having hope as a strategy.” Among federal Conservatives, another key strategic assumption appears to have been their confidence that, even if the Senate expenses issue caused them temporary headaches, the Harper government’s image for competent economic management would continue to define it in the public eye. But pollster Nik Nanos, of Ottawa-based Nanos Research, says the days when the Tories could rest on their economic-policy laurels are over.
Back in June—the month following the revelation that Wright had cut a fat cheque to pay back Duffy’s expenses—a Nanos poll found that 45 per cent of respondents put more weight on Harper’s economic performance than his handling of the Senate issue, while 39 per cent rated the Senate scandal more significant. By October, though, Nanos found those numbers had more than reversed, with 51 per cent of those polled saying they thought Harper’s actions on the Senate issue were more significant than his economic management. The Conservatives’ attempts to deflect blame away from Harper were evidently no longer working. “Back in June, when we were initially doing the polling, the focus was on Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright,” Nanos says. “Fast forward to the fall and the focus is increasingly on the Prime Minister.”
It’s not as if the Conservatives haven’t tried to change the channel. On Oct. 18, Harper flew to Brussels to announce the broad terms of a huge trade deal with the European Union; the following week Duffy commandeered the news cycle with a theatrical speech, defending his actions and denouncing Harper’s, on the Senate floor. On Nov. 12, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that the government is on track to end seven years of deficits and post a surplus before the 2015 election; the next week brought that trove of new RCMP court documents.
In NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Harper faces an official Opposition leader whose forte is turning any unwelcome development against the Prime Minister. Still, Nanos says Mulcair’s powerfully prosecutorial performances in question period, which have helped his survey ratings as leader, might actually disguise a “party brand” problem. “People like the New Democrats as the Opposition, a party that holds other parties to account,” he says. “But we shouldn’t confuse that with people wanting the NDP to be the government. Those are two different things.” Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau’s strong poll ratings as Liberal leader, Nanos says, have softened somewhat lately as Mulcair’s improve.
With his partisan adversaries vying to be seen as the real alternative, Harper is far from doomed the next time Canadians are called to the polls. After all, B.C.’s Liberal Premier Christy Clark staged a stunning comeback victory in last spring’s election, despite facing her own ethics issues (including multi-million-dollar provincial procurements and strategies for wooing ethnic voters), partly by relentlessly attacking NDP challenger Adrian Dix over his admitted role in creating a fake document way back in 1998. The lesson many political insiders drew from the B.C. outcome is that Clark won by being hard-hitting and Dix lost by trying to run an upbeat campaign.
Harper’s Conservatives, past masters of the art of the attack ad, hardly needed to be reminded that going negative often works. And, like the B.C. Liberals, the federal Tories don’t hesitate to dust off very old stories about their rivals. Confronted with new Senate spending revelations, Harper and his lieutenants often slam Mulcair for having failed to report to police a possible bribe offer, which he rejected, when he was a rookie politician in Quebec in 1994. On Trudeau, Justice Minister Peter MacKay equates the Liberal leader’s open admission that he has smoked marijuana with Rob Ford’s confession—offered only when denial was no longer feasible—that he used crack cocaine.
Add it all up and it doesn’t bode well for a change in tone that might persuade Canadians to take a less jaundiced view of their politicians. Partisan strategists would rather hope ethical problems go away than come clean on them early. The resulting scandals overshadow policy substance. In the elections that follow, attack will always beat uplift on the campaign trail. Step back a few strides and what might have seemed to be separate, messy affairs begin to blur together into an ingrained way of political life.