Harper’s great gamble on ethics

Paul Wells on how Stephen Harper will weather any ethical storm

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Spare a moment of pity for a punditocracy that’s lost its narrative. We’ve been covering the curious affair of the cheque to the senator for 11 months. And suddenly, the cops have stolen our denouement.

On April 16, the RCMP announced it won’t be laying charges against Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, for writing a $90,000 personal cheque to pay off Sen. Mike Duffy’s expenses. Wright must have breathed easier. The Prime Minister must have breathed easier. But there was no joy in punditville.

Chris Hall, CBC: “Nigel Wright cleared, but questions won’t end with investigation.” Dan Leger, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald: “What is certain is that political questions around the Senate scandal will continue to swirl.” Andrew Coyne: “Just because no charges have been laid—against Wright; Duffy was given no such assurance—does not mean nothing happened here, or that it wasn’t wrong.” Stephen Maher: “But it’s up to politicians, not police or judges, to tell us how it is that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff is able to make a secret payment to a sitting legislator without facing criminal prosecution. There is no way that should be legal.” Chantal Hébert: “The partisan celebrations . . . are way out of line with the actual situation.”

I actually don’t disagree with my colleagues. Questions won’t end. In fact, they may swirl. And something definitely happened. But, in fairness, many of us skipped a bit too lightly over the first part of the analysis. The non-arrest of Nigel Wright is a huge relief for the Harper government, for big and simple reasons. Flip it around: If the PM’s former chief of staff had been handcuffed and bundled off, it would not merely have been a lousy day for Conservatives. It would have opened a whole new chapter of lousiness: months of trials and a steady drip of revelations about how the PMO operates at its worst; not pleasant. All of that is off the table now. This government has been in spectacular need of some good news. This qualifies.

That is, of course, assuming that Harper’s sometimes tone-deaf press shop can resist the urge to pop champagne corks in public. For it is indeed true that what Wright did was kind of gross. Unlike Mike Duffy, most of us don’t have millionaire political staffers with flexible standards to bail us out when we get into trouble. Stephen Harper came to office, like so many of his predecessors, swearing that whom you know in the PMO wouldn’t matter, as long as he was there. Now we know connections were crucial for Duffy, and Wright knew perfectly well how bad his actions would look. “I believed that my actions were always in the public interest and lawful,” he says now, through his lawyer. Really? Funny how he went to such lengths to keep them quiet at the time, then. He is right to be relieved that his actions were lawful, or not sufficiently blatantly unlawful for the police to follow through. But neither he nor his former colleagues are in any position to brag.

What they have won is limited but real: a respite. It will be instructive to see how Harper uses it. It has become increasingly obvious that he plans to stick around to lead the Conservatives into his fifth election as leader. With the election of a majority government in 2011, he seemed to have hit cruising speed at last. Instead, his government has often seemed jinxed—unable to find projects or themes that would have made the majority worth winning, and unable to secure a big win on energy exports or to repair relations with the Obama administration in Washington.

Unable, above all, to get its own message out. There was a time, as recently as a year ago, when the government believed it had a story to tell. Now it’s hunkered down, plainly afraid of news reporters and comically unable to tell a story without them. When Joe Oliver, the first Jewish finance minister in the country’s history, was sworn in at Rideau Hall, news photographers were banished. Harper’s private photographer took photos that did not show Oliver’s face, although you could see Stephen Harper quite well in the background. The PMO now devotes bewildering resources to the production of a weekly YouTube video digest of Harper’s adventures. Nobody watches it. The finance department’s own polling shows that fewer and fewer people even notice the television ads designed to laud the government’s stewardship of the economy.

Harper’s re-election strategy amounts to a bet. He believes nothing matters except the health of the economy. If it is robust, he can take credit. If it is shaky, he can warn it would be worse under the Liberals and New Democrats. In the meantime, voters will write off bouts of paranoia, toxic partisanship, penny-ante ineptitude and the occasional epic wallow in mercifully unindicted ethical swamps as the sort of thing any party would do in power.

It’s becoming a pretty safe bet that no ethical or criminal big bang will derail Harper’s plans. If he loses, it won’t be because a crony gets led off in chains. It’ll be a subtler thing, the sum of a thousand pouts and grudges. On current form, Harper loses. But much can change. He has been one of the most resilient and surprising politicians of the modern era. It’s just that it’s getting hard to recall when that was so.


Harper’s great gamble on ethics

  1. Mr. Harper may run and hide and dodge and bob, but eventually this will have an effect on public opinion, and if I were Harper, I would very mindful of public opinion. Public opinion will write the book on this guy. Harper is corrupt and will always be corrupt, its just fortunate for him right now he has the taxpayers bank account to keep the smell off of him right now, but I will bet, the only thing Harper will be remembered for is corrupting democracy and stifling it anytime it gets in his way. Harper has moved the bar very high for the next PM to run this country, if and if it is a conservative, the bar will go even higher again, and before you know it, we will be left with nothing but a dictatorship. Canadians need to harness this corruption and distain for democracy before we start to become a Orwellian society.

  2. Public opinion is already against him. My bet is that he banks on the electorate either hating the other guys more, or liking the other guys equally and splitting the vote. He must believe he has the magic bullet that will take Trudeau down. My personal, and completely unsubstantiated in any way, opinion, is that Harper and Layton’s people planned that Layton would turn on Ignatieff during the debates. I believe the NDP and CPC will work together during the next election campaign too.

    This whole Youtube thing is just bizarre though. Is it possible they will be able to use the footage during an election campaign? I cannot understand the motivation behind this. Perhaps they hope someone will watch it eventually.

    • Harper and Layton’s people planned that Layton would turn on Ignatieff during the debates.

      I don’t think there was any direct collaboration between the NDP and CPC, but I believe that the CPC anticipated that Layton would attack Ignatieff. The only one that didn’t anticipate it was Ignatieff. The same will happen next time around: While they won’t explicitly work together, the CPC is banking on Mulcair and Trudeau fighting it out.

      Also, he doesn’t have to bank on the public hating the others more/liking the others equally. He just has to bank on what he feels are the public’s priorities, and who the public feels is the best choice to handle those priorities. In Harper’s case, he believes the economy is at the top of voters’ minds, and that will sway people to vote CPC, despite their personal feelings towards Harper.

      • Sorry, but if all he cared about was people’s priorities, he would not have spent money on slandering Dion, and then Ignatieff, and now Trudeau. Why the personal attacks if he thinks policy will win the day?

        As for the collaboration, as I say it is unsubstantiated (other than an admission from one NDP campaign worker for Rob Nicholson that the CPC shared polling data with the NDP in 2005), but I believe it nonetheless. It benefits both parties to attack the LPC – a coordinated attack benefits them even more. They would be foolish not to do so.

  3. “Instead, his government has often seemed jinxed—unable to find projects or themes that would have made the majority worth winning,…”

    I honestly believe it’s because Harper in particular never really had a coherent conservative vision of what this country might look like through his eyes – just distain, hatred really for all things Liberal; Trudeauvian at bottom. How any one can sustain a lifetimes enmity for just one man and his offspring is simply astonishing.
    When you peel away some of that hatred there’s nothing underneath to run for rather than against; same thing in 2015…he’ll be running against JT, not for anything positively Harperian.

    • Having lived in Alberta my entire life, I am familiar with the eternal hatred of Trudeau. That said, and not to sound indelicate, but that hatred is generally restricted to people who do not put a lot of thought into politics – at least not rational thought.

      Harper is many things, but thoughtless and stupid his is not. I wonder if he is just preying on the negative sentiment so many in this country hold towards Trudeau senior – or at least that held in Alberta.

      • It’s not really clear, but somewhere along the line Harper decided to run as an anti Trudeau. Who knows what triggered it; opportunism and political convenience a la Mulroney, as you say; something merely handy to build a counter narrative to the Liberals around, launched from the natural home of anti Trudeauism? But something doesn’t entirely make sense in this narrative. Originally said to almost worship pet, the guy miraculously sees the Burkian light on the road to Calgary ( according to wells). I simply find that too pat. There’s something deeply personal about this, as there nearly always is with Harper – either that or he was utterly indoctrinated by cooper, TF and the Calgary School of sour losers and even sourer winners.

  4. Amazing stroke of luck in past week. Senate scandal with Nigel Wright dies and the electorial chief can’t charge anyone in robocalling either. Ethics of inaction in Climate change, closing scientific libraries, muzzling change we need hopefully will rule out over the Conservative agenda next time.

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