The Bev Oda affair and the Tories’ scandal-management strategy

What does it take to get fired in Ottawa?

by Aaron Wherry

What it takes to get fired

Sean Kilpatrick/CP;Adrian Wyld/CP

To say that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s actions in the affair that’s put her at the centre of a parliamentary uproar were indefensible would, strictly speaking, be inaccurate. When it comes to a beleaguered cabinet minister, there’s always a way to mount a defence. But Oda’s situation had turned so dire last week that the defensive postures open to the Prime Minister and his front-bench political lieutenant, House leader John Baird, look severely limited. If the controversy is, at its root, about integrity in Parliament, it is also the most extreme test yet of Stephen Harper’s willingness to stick by a minister under a sustained opposition onslaught.

That assault is expected to resume in the House after this week’s mid-winter break for MPs. By now the outline of the saga is widely known. In 2009, Oda rejected a church-based aid group called Kairos for renewal of its long-standing Canadian International Development Agency grant. She called the rejection a “CIDA decision,” but it turned out top CIDA officials had signed a note recommending approval of Kairos’s funding. That memo was later altered when the word “not” was penned in before “approve.”

Oda told a House committee she didn’t know who inserted the “not,” only to admit later that she had ordered the doctoring of the document. “Any reasonable person confronted with what appears to have transpired would necessarily be extremely concerned, if not shocked,” House Speaker Peter Milliken said after reviewing the facts.

Against that sordid backdrop, and amid howls from the opposition for Oda’s head, Harper tried to radically alter the terms of debate. Ignoring the core question of whether Oda had misled the House, he asserted that what was really at issue was the right of an elected minister to refuse to be dictated to by unelected mandarins. “This is what democracy means,” Harper said in question period. Never mind that nobody disputed Oda’s right to overrule advice from CIDA officials. Baird went even further down the same track. “She is a minister,” he said, “who made a difficult and courageous decision when it came to not awarding a grant in this regard.”

Their staunch defence of her contrasts with two earlier cases. Maxime Bernier had to resign as foreign minister over leaving official documents at the home of his girlfriend. Helena Guergis was dumped as a junior minister, and even kicked out of the Tory caucus, over allegations concerning the conduct of her husband, former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, that remain unproven. But both those episodes were about individual conduct, not Conservative policy, or any actions of the Prime Minister’s Office or other cabinet ministers.

What it takes to get fired

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

So cutting Bernier and Guergis adrift effectively solved Harper’s problem without risk of widening the circle of culpability. But Oda’s actions fit a policy of scrutinizing long-standing funding recipients. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney later suggested Kairos was cut off over its stance on Israel. Opposition MPs speculate about PMO string-pulling. Admitting fault on Oda’s part would invite more probing along all those avenues. Standing by her can be made to look like standing up for principle. It’s the same approach Harper took when he refused to remove Gordon O’Connor as defence minister in 2007, after O’Connor had to apologize to the House for misleading comments he made concerning Afghan detainees. The detainee policy, not just a single minister, was in play. (O’Connor was quietly shuffled out of Defence a few months later.)

Harper’s casting of Oda as a courageous democrat, against charges that she’s a bumbling dissembler, amounts to a bet that Canadians will care more about how his ministers handle bureaucrats than whether they respect Parliament. The issue of misleading the House has “resonated with journalists,” says McGill University political science professor Stuart Soroka, “but I don’t have a sense of whether it resonates with the public.”

Harper prides himself on running a government that knows how to distinguish what preoccupies the media from what matters to voters. Indeed, his discipline in not worrying much about the former was a political leitmotif in 2010. Early last year, Harper’s prorogation of Parliament, suspending House sittings in January and February, sparked opposition outrage and a Facebook-driven popular backlash. But the Tories bet the move wouldn’t hurt them for long, and the polls soon proved them right. Last summer’s outpouring of insider angst over Harper’s cancelling the long-form census followed the same pattern—a big issue around the Hill that failed to drag down the Conservatives’ buoyant polling numbers.

But those were issues of process and policy. If Harper is able to keep Oda in cabinet without paying a political price, the implications for future scandal management in Ottawa could be significant. Scott Reid, a former top adviser to prime minister Paul Martin, has an unsurprising take on Oda—that she should be fired. But Reid is also watching the affair unfold with the same analytical curiosity as other veteran political aides who’ve helped manage past cabinet crises. He says a minister under siege has traditionally fallen into one of three categories: “on the ropes” over errors they’ve made, but not over serious ethical or character lapses; “an embarrassment” because of some glaring instance of poor judgment, but possibly worth saving; and “guilty of a firing offence,” of which the undisputed examples are talking to a judge about a case or “deliberately and obviously misleading the House.”

At least, those used to be the undisputed firing offences. If Oda survives, misleading the House might have to be downgraded to Reid’s second tier of awkward but not necessarily fatal. Of course, the Conservatives aren’t conceding that Oda lied. They offer the following explanations. She was asked in a House committee who had inserted the word “not” in that document, and honestly said she didn’t know, but would have fessed up to having ordered the alteration had she been asked how the change came to be made. And when she said in a written answer to an opposition question that de-funding Kairos was a “CIDA decision,” she meant in the sense that “CIDA encompasses both officials and the minister responsible for CIDA.”

Milliken must now decide is there’s merit in those fine lines of defence. The House Speaker has been asked to rule on an opposition motion claiming Oda violated MPs’ privileges by misleading them. She might eventually be found in contempt of Parliament, which would be unprecedented for a cabinet minister. Yet Carleton University political science professor Jonathan Malloy isn’t sure even that would matter much. Malloy says Canadians generally view Parliament now mainly in terms of party wrangling. They cheer for one side or the other based on their partisan inclinations. “If this goes further as a contempt-of-Parliament matter,” he says, “it just becomes an extension of the partisan battle.”

And that might be an acceptable outcome for the Prime Minister. Casting the Oda affair as a mere partisan squabble over parliamentary niceties could allow him to save a minister, and avoid handing his enemies a win on a point of principle, with a possible spring election in the wind. If he succeeds, any cabinet minister’s future missteps will have to be viewed in the changed light of their much improved chances of surviving scandal.




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The Bev Oda affair and the Tories’ scandal-management strategy

  1. This is why the second party in federal politics needs to be at least halfway serious about earning the people's respect as an alternate choice for government. As it stands, the "Natural Governing Party" crown has been transferred to another skull; it has not been destroyed. This is NOT good for the country.

  2. Jonathan Malloy said that if Oda is found to be in contempt of parliament, he isn't sure it "would matter that much." I hope he's wrong; if he's not, the state of politics in Canada is far worse than I thought (and I already think it's pretty damn bad).

  3. "Even in the end, this was still a minor issue, that ultimately led to a left-wing Christian group not getting $7 million of Canadian taxpayer money. It really is nitpicking otherwise. Her actions might not have been up to par for a member of parliament, but this wasn't some type of scam where the taxpayers ended up on the hook for at least."

    So, then, where do we draw the line on MPs misleading parliament? Does every misdeed get a pass unless it's as bad as Adscam? Why is there such a g*damned resistance to basic friggin' accountability?

    I don't care how this benefits the Liberals. I DO care that someone who has misled parliament is held to account. As long as there are people like you who can turn a blind eye to this kind of crap because it's their particular party that engaged in it, we'll continue to get crappy governments.

    • If her lying cost the country $100 million, that would be one thing.

      Ultimately though the idea of conservatism only can possibly exist with the conservatives. So her actions regarding an item that saved the taxpayers $7 million dollars in the end… it's hard to get worked up about.

      I'm not about to vote Liberal because of this "accountability" issue, simply because I understand that under Harper is Canada's best chance for conservative governance. And until he's given a majority, or just completely goes off the deep-end and NDPizes the country with his governing, it's hard to cast a true judgment on his governing.

      It's still just a petty scandal, and voting for a party that has a liberal platform is not a viable option.

      • Ends justify means… gotcha.

        I hope you do realize that Oda lying to parliament and getting away with it sets the bar lower for this and every other government to follow — including a future Liberal government. The message? You don't have to be truthful in parliament. It weakens the institution.

        I'm not telling you to vote Liberal. I'm not even saying the Conservatives have to go. All I'm saying is that this sh*t shouldn't go unpunished. I can't for the life of me understand why people can condone it and shrug it off.

        • Bingo!

        • Because their "team" is winning. Simple as that, sadly.

        • I made this exact point last week. Any Conservative partisan who, say 15 years from now is up in arms over some (legitimate) Liberal government's abuse of Parliament will be turgid with hypocrisy. Do they think the Conservatives will always be the government? Or are they already planning on ignoring their now-nonchalance in future?

          • I don't have a problem with the voters electing a Liberal government. The failed 2008 coup not so much.

            I am not aware of an abuse of parliament but feel free to repeat the talking points from the Liberal war room, they might catch on ….

      • For gods sakes Harper is ^NOT a steady leader and The Liberals have ^NOT exactly had to manufacture these complaints. They now measure in the thousands. I will agree that it is hard to complain every day and still be taken seriously, but if Harper's defence is that they 'Doth protest too Much", I proffer that there is Just too damned much to complain about.
        Ryan:
        Every day, another issue crops up with this 'leader'. Harper is incompetent Every day. He is underhanded Every day. He is in contempt Every day and he is not a Leader Any day!

        As far as the Adscam goes, The Harper Government has spent over 100 million Dollars (of our money) telling Canadians that he is a steady manager, but as obviously contemptable as that is, his $56 Billion Deficit costs as much as Adscam did Every day. Do the Math (it is over a hundred million dollars every day) and stop trying to defend the indefensible! Oda Must Go! Harper must Go!

      • Is there any proof that we actually saved 7 million dollars or did Oda give that money to 'right wing' Christian groups. Who is getting the maternal health funding?

        • This application for funding would have been approved with an additional "zero" added on the end of the amount, if the Alliance Church was a memeber of KAIROS.

  4. It's quite simple really. Do you want a government that lies to you or not. If you do move because honest Canadians do not want lies.

    • So that would negate every political party.LOL

      • Shameful but true. Though the CPC campaigned long and hard on the promise of greater transparency and accountability – and then we get crap like this… Didn't take long for the "better than the other guys" party to sink right back down into the muck and slime with the rest of them.

    • It is not that Canadians do not want honesty in their members of parliament. In this case however, it has not been proven that Bev Oda lied and she makes a sympthetic figure. She is older and she is fallible. Canadians are a forgiving people – as long as you do not steal money from them for your own personal gain.

      • If the speaker finds Oda in contempt of parliament, she cannot go unpunished. It's as simple as that. If she is permitted to mislead parliament, it diminishes the integrity of the institution.

      • … and as long as you honestly own up to your mistakes. The CPC has twisted themselves into pretzels trying to account for her behaviour when a simple "I screwed up; I didn't know the protocol" would have satisfied most Canadians (except perhaps the Opposition) – assuming none of her staff then contradicted her.

        Stand up; tell the truth, show herself to be a person of integrity. If she had done this from the outset, there would be no issue.

  5. As long as you have people like Ryan defending the indefensible because it is the Party they support that is doing it, Harper will continue to do what ever he and his party are doing. But, are we ready to give any party that comes in the same leeway when they do the same or ever worse. I don't think the Reformers in this Country will be so kind in their attitude because they are so rabid in their hunt that they throw their conscience to the gutter when they smell blood. Maybe that is what we need among the middle and left leaning people in this country. Give it back like we've been given.

  6. Ryan, they dont understand it.Its like the boy that cried wolf, and thse committees that we have to pay for that turn up nothing.Cast your mind bcak to HRDC Jane, she lost LOST a million dollars( or was it more) what did Chretein say, its just a million!

    Harper will have my vote in the next election, he does a good job with this country, and we are not a laughing stock, not at all.

  7. "But the Tories bet the move wouldn't hurt them for long, and the polls soon proved them right."

    Is that actually the case? The polls rebounded back to tepid approval, alongside increasing disapproval. One might wonder why a party that has been campaigning relentlessly for four years, pursued various vote gettting activities such as funding infrastructure and organizations and then advertising about it and reduced the GST has trouble getting more then 30% approval.

    • They're on the verge of getting a majority, according to the polls. Sure, those moves have made the Conservatives some die-hard enemies, but the core hasn't abandoned them, and a sufficient number of non-partisans don't see their governing style as a problem, or see them as the best of a bad lot.

      I think the quote you pulled out is quite accurate.

      • That's one month of polling in several years of campaign governing, and the polls still report increasing disapproval ratings. Even though consumed to the point of almost complete distraction from all else the Conservatives haven't been definitively in approval land for more than a round of polling.

        I think the behaviour discussed above has prevented the Conservatives from reaping the benefit of all their advertising, campaign style of governing and faux populism.

        • Don't forget though, that as Wells has reminded us, and the linked G&M charts show, the PCs/Reform/Alliance/Conservatives have improved their performance on eDay compared to pre-writ polls in EVERY election in the last 30 years (except the mixed results in 1993). http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/why-

  8. the difference between those who are disciplined and those who aren't is easy to explain.

    those who are disciplined were because of their own actions whereas those who are not disciplined are just following the prime minister's orders

  9. There should have been more pressure on getting rid of the guy at the top when they overspent on the 2006 elections campaign. Why was he allowed to assume office while in court with Elections Canada? Clear that up before giving him a seat in the our government for crying out loud! Why is he there? How do we get back 5 stolen years of really contemptible, incompetent government?

    If Layton or the Greens brought in policy allowing for voters to fire the ones that are in contempt or not doing the job they were hired to do they could probably win seat on that alone. Do it NDP and support it Greens.

  10. The only "scandal" here is the scandalous behaviour of the media who blindly regurgitate and actively participate in a 2 year old pre-conceived Liberal party smear campaign. The media fan the flames of hysteria and scream "burn the witch" simply because the Liberal party says so. No need for balance or fairness, just unhinged, hysterical, partisan group think. When the Speaker rules there was no breach of trust will the media apologize for their reckless lynch mob behaviour? Not likely. They'll just wait until the next Liberal war room manufactured smear job comes along and without reflection or even a modicum of critical thought immediately jump to the front of the lynch mob screaming "hang the Con"!! Why don't the lefty Libs/Separatists and the media stop with the feigned outrage and manufactured smears and admit that their real problem is that Minister Oda chose NOT to fund a left wing group called Kairos.

    • As I said before…

      I hope you do realize that Oda lying to parliament and getting away with it sets the bar lower for this and every other government to follow — including a future Liberal government. The message? You don't have to be truthful in parliament. It weakens the institution.

      I'm not telling you to vote Liberal. I'm not even saying the Conservatives have to go. All I'm saying is that this sh*t shouldn't go unpunished. I can't for the life of me understand why people can condone it and shrug it off.

      As I also said before…

      Why is there such a g*damned resistance to basic friggin' accountability?

      • The lack of ANY response to your simple query speaks volumes about political partisans does it not?

        Damned fools the bunch of them.

      • What proof do you have that Minister Oda lied? You are simply doing what I'm accusing the media of doing and that it is repeating Liberal talking points. If Minister Oda is found in breach of Parliament than she should face the consequences, agreed. My concern is over the rush to lynch someone just because the Liberals and their media say so. My reading of this issue is that Minister Oda didn't do anything wrong and she is being unfairly and viciously smeared so that the Adscam party can score some cheap political points.

    • Oh, and I can't speak for the media, but I will happily apologize IF the speaker rules there was no breach.

      Can I expect the same from you if Oda is found to be in contempt?

      • Yes! If Minister Oda is found in contempt I will admit I was wrong. Too bad the media won't do the same. This is a witch hunt, a co-ordinated witch hunt at that. Unlike Liberal followers i would never support a political party that is PROVEN to be in contempt.

  11. The MSM said nothing when Mark Holland (Lib) said the only way we wil get rid of Harper is to KILL KILL him, and Lib office had a pic of Harpers face superemposed on Lee Harvy Oswalds face just as he was shot by Jack Rubby the Libs lost me forever.

  12. Regardless of whichever political party you prefer, if any, contempt of Parliament is not “just a petty act”. Each and every one of our politicians were explicitly informed, both verbally and in writing, of what they may and may not do in the House of Commons. Contempt of Parliament is a major offence, as I see it. One with significant repercussions, to our detriment, both short and long term.

  13. Baird went even further down the same track. “She is a minister,” he said, “who made a difficult and courageous decision when it came to not awarding a grant in this regard.”

    Exaggerate much?

  14. Business as usual with the conservatives. They wouldnt recognize ethics and honesty if it hit them with a truck. To all the con/reformers that think this behavior is acceptable just remember that the government will change one day. Are these breeches to our laws and parliamentary procedures going to be OK when its another party in power? I dont think so.
    Smarten up.

    • Business as usual for the Adscam party and their followers. They pretend to care about ethics and accountability, but continue to support the most corrupt political party in the history of Canada, the Liberals. Smarten up… indeed.

  15. I think one of the only ways to get Harper out is to balance the political ads; that may mean that more of us have to donate to the Liberal government. The other thing we have to do is undertake public protests. This Harper government is eroding our democracy and we have to start being preventive. Wouldn't that make Harper look bad if we, in Canada of all places, protested against our increasingly undemocratic governement?

  16. "a bet that Canadians will care more about how his ministers handle bureaucrats than whether they respect Parliament."

    Because journalists think bureaucrats can do no wrong??The voter knows better than that. The main stream commentators aren't in tune with how the public thinks. No none is perfect and the public understands that.

    Scott Reid, a former top adviser to prime minister Paul Martin……………well, that says it all. Scott Reid, what a joke.

  17. To me, the issue is not just that Oda lied, but that she committed fraud by ordering the document to be altered after it had been signed by CIDA. By ordering one of her underlings to alter the document she can claim that she didn't do it, but still, she was altering the implicit approval that CIDA had granted the funding request. If this had happened in the private sector, Oda would've been fired. You don't alter signed documents and expect to get away with it. This is not a partisan issue, it is an ethical and legal one.

  18. I am so sick and tired of all the bull crap, lack of accountability, responsibility, and blatant thieving that goes on in the government….pick a party…can't account for $50 million; it's only $50 million'…a fur coat, gum, lavish dinners charged to expenses, amongst other ridiculous items expensed…an altered document here, a little white lie there…more broken promises, the obscene gouging of taxes (pick one), and the even more obscene full pension they receive after only 5 years service! Boy, oh boy…if we miss filing our taxes by one day and we are owing, start the interest timer. Gee, it sure would be nice if they could live in my shoes for a while… annual earnings barely above the poverty line, single parent trying to help kids through university…three jobs, no job… They are unable to identify with those who struggle financially, or recognize how hard some of us have to work to make ends meet. Year after year of wasted money, new and increasing taxes…disgusting!

  19. You know? I don't care whether she's a Con, a Lib, a Green or a damn Marxist-Leninist; SHE ORDERED DOCUMENTS TO BE FALSIFIED and LIED (lie of omission) IN PARLIAMENT.

    And yes, I *DID* rant and rave about the 'Cretin' government pulling this same contemptible, "forget the rules or LAWS;I can do what ever I want" garbage.

    If the NDP came in power on a campaign promise of increasing funding to education, then focused more on beating down debt, and the Opposition later asked the NDP Finance Minister where their promised funding went, and the F.M. responded "We did spend more on education than before the election" only to have documented evidence of government disbursements contradict his statement? Yeah, I'd be calling for HIM to be fired, too.

    I don't care WHO you are, but I sure as anything care if you're going to LIE AND DISASSEMBLE AND CHEAT while in public office.

    …and the fact that HarperCo™ is SUPPORTING a proven liar and someone that should be investigated for Contempt of Parliament only means that the rest of the apple basket has gotten worms and needs to be pitched out.

    Oh, and I know "Hindsight is 20/20" but I find it quite amusing that the 'Harper Government' DID end up called to the carpet for Contempt of Parliament…but on *a different charge*, just a month later; I think my assessment of how bad the WHOLE government is gotten and needs replacing is just been strengthened.

  20. Someone should kill Bev Oda!

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