A former Harper staffer who, as luck would have it, was working in the Conservative war room until this afternoon takes the fall, claiming that he was “pressed for time”, and was “overzealous in copying segments of another world leader’s speech.” Case closed? Well, that depends.
This wasn’t just any speech – it was, at the time, probably one of the most important statements that Stephen Harper, as opposition leader, would make in the House of Commons – and he was lauded for it by supporters, like Tom Flanagan, who called it “eloquent”, and by those on the other side of the aisle, like then-Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, who called it “thoughtful and powerful” – as well as the press. Portions of it found their way into the op-ed pages of newspapers like the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Toronto Star. It was so well received, in fact, that the Canadian Alliance The Party That No Longer Exists even printed up “thousands of copies” in pamphlet form, according to Flanagan. At no point, we are now to believe, did the then-opposition leader ever confess, publicly or privately, that he wasn’t the sole author — that nearly half of the words that he delivered that day were written by a low-level staffer – one of those underpaid, overworked Hill-ites who toil behind the scenes, unseen, unheard and uncredited.
Which, of course, is exactly the way it should be. Much like the principle of ministerial responsibility, that’s how it works – staffers do the grunt work, the leader gets to bask in the glory. But if something should go wrong, it is the leader, like the minister, who shoulders the blame. Or, at least, it was. Now, when controversy erupts, a familiar pattern has taken shape: first, denial — “I really don’t think there’s a story here,” says a senior party source. If that doesn’t work, a staffer – the staffer, perhaps – is thrown to the wolves, and the leader and party move on, stepping carefully to stay clear of the muddy, but still warm body that lies in the political gutter.
We must take him – this staffer – at his word: after all, he has resigned from the campaign, although no mention was made of whether he will keep his day job as a senior ministerial policy advisor. It is difficult, though, to understand how a former university lecturer and prolific writer – a Fraser Institute researcher, a former Globe and Mail editorial board member, even – with more than two decades of public policy experience would be “overzealous” in cutting and pasting from someone else’s speech, let alone the prime minister of a Commonwealth country. (What, we wonder, is the appropriate amount of zealotry in such a situation?) He has, after all, likely made it difficult, if not impossible to return to academia, where, like journalism, plagiarism – even just the allegation of plagiarism – is the kiss of death for even the most promising career.
In a different time – an older time – the name of this staffer would never have been revealed, even after such an error in judgement had been. The same leader who accepted the applause of the House when he delivered the speech would have accepted responsibility when its ultimate source was revealed. These days, it falls to a staffer – the staffer, perhaps – to fall on his sword.
There is no moral to this story, really. That’s just the way it goes.