Stephen Harper's real problem goes beyond Mike Duffy -

Stephen Harper’s real problem goes beyond Mike Duffy

It isn’t just Mike Duffy and Ray Novak, says Paul Wells. It’s about the Conservatives’ style of government.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Toronto on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Toronto on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

“I’m certainly not going to comment on an ongoing court case,” Stephen Harper said this morning in London during his daily, and mercifully brief, interrogation at the hands of travelling reporters. “But all of the facts certify exactly what I’ve said.”

The court case, of course, is Mike Duffy. A cottage industry has sprung up in the land—a loose affiliation of lawyers and reporters—dedicated to establishing and spreading the news that the facts really don’t certify what the Prime Minister has been saying. The nexus of incredulity is centred in the person of Ray Novak, Harper’s discreet and amiable chief of staff, who travels with the Conservative leader but does not speak, at least to anyone in my line of work, and who—if we are to believe everything that has been said about him in the past 10 days by Duffy trial witnesses, Harper himself, and Harper’s chief spokesman Kory Teneycke—is some kind of human singularity. Laws of physics break down when he is near.

Related: Our 2010 profile of Ray Novak

There was an email, you see, from Novak’s predecessor, Nigel Wright, to Novak, that Novak never read. There was a conference call in which he participated, but he didn’t hear the most important part of the conversation. There was a meeting at which the government’s own lawyer saw Novak, whose appearance is distinctive, and noted his reactions—but Novak wasn’t there. He’s like the hitchhiker in the Twilight Zone episode. If you tried to touch him, your hand would pass right through. No wonder Harper likes him so much.

After Tuesday’s extraordinary courtroom exchanges between Donald Bayne and Nigel Wright, many reporters wondered how Harper would handle the news that a witness normally friendly to his government’s goals—the Prime Minister’s own former legal counsel, Benjamin Perrin—had told police he saw Novak at a meeting where Wright’s personal payment to Mike Duffy was discussed. Perhaps Novak would be dismissed from Harper’s staff before dawn. Perhaps the Conservative leader would simply implode. No such dénouement presented itself today, for to say Harper is gifted at stonewalling is to flatter stone walls. He replied, in the manner of René Magritte, Ceci n’est pas un really big political problem. All of the facts, he said, certify exactly what he’s said.

So now what?

Here, I want to put in a good word for Angry Yelling Conservative Guy, who called two reporters “lying pieces of s–t” after Harper’s Toronto event yesterday and who made a zero with his fingers—at least I think it was a zero—to express his estimation of the significance of the entire Duffy scandal. Duffy is “a nothing,” he said. I disagree, but Angry Yelling Conservative Guy is hardly the only person I know who’s made the same point. And it’s defensible two ways. First, as Colby Cosh has valiantly argued, at the end of the whole Duffy mess, the Canadian taxpayer was not out any money, and Nigel Wright was. In the middle of the story, there’s a sum, about $90,000, that surely ranks as chump change against the worst of previous public scandals, especially the sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien years. And the motive of the sponsorship scandal was nasty: to use a national-unity crisis as the pretext to funnel a large number of millions of taxpayer dollars toward crooked self-promoters in Quebec so they could pay themselves commissions for bogus events and kick back part of the cash to the Liberal Party of Canada, in an infinite supply loop.

So there’s a sense in which Angry Yelling Guy and Colby Cosh, if they really are two different people, have a point: In its dollar value, the Duffy mess fails a scale test. But they have another kind of point, which not all readers will buy. Indeed, I know most won’t. But this point is taken as gospel by everyone around Stephen Harper.

Related: The Duffy affair: Where precisely is the beef?

Angry Yelling Guy’s point is that any system organized to keep Stephen Harper in power protects the Canadian taxpayer, because Stephen Harper runs a government that does less and costs less than whatever the Liberals and New Democrats would come up with. This is, essentially, the Nigel Wright perspective: that rules are to be respected, sure, but only insofar as they are compatible with the Conservatives’ continued electoral dominance. Not because Conservative victory serves the squalid goal of in-group cronyism, but because it serves (what Wright and Angry Yelling Guy see as) a higher goal: the protection of a limited federal state against the would-be architects of a bloated and overreaching federal state.

We saw that perspective in emails the RCMP released in late 2013, in which Wright expressed exasperation at a Senate staffer named Chris Montgomery, who wanted a bunch of silly rules to be followed.

“Chris simply does not believe in our goal of circling the wagons,” Wright complained in one email. “Because of this lack of buy-in, it was impossible to discuss meaningfully the parliamentary strategy.”

The “goal of circling the wagons,” you see, was a beautiful goal, because it preserved a better government against its assorted tormentors: rules; reporters; taxes; political parties representing, in the aggregate, a majority of voters.

It was the “goal of circling the wagons” that led Wright and three subordinates, Joanne McNamara, Chris Woodcock and Patrick Rogers, to write a perfectly astonishing memo to Harper in March of 2013, complaining that the Senate was acting as an independent deliberative body. Which, of course, it is supposed to be, and which Harper has always insisted it is. “What we see is a laissez-faire system that requires constant direction, supervision and follow-up from your office [the PMO] to ensure that government messaging and direction are followed,” the quartet of senior PMO advisers wrote. I admit I was surprised to read in the memo that Sen. Marjory LeBreton “does not embrace the work of [the PMO] to bring communication and direction with the Senate closer to the model that we have with the House Leader and the Chief Government Whip.” I always had the strong impression that LeBreton would embrace whatever she was told to. But partial or sporadic servility wasn’t enough in Wright’s eyes: Conservative senators had to be as dedicated to “our goal of circling the wagons” as everyone else. Perfect discipline in pursuit of a perfect goal.

Seen this way, there is no real difference between the Stephen Harper who sat down in London this morning for a gentle on-stage interrogation on economic matters by Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and the Harper who stood up moments later for his daily grilling at the hands of the CBC’s Hannah Thibedeau, CP’s Kristy Kirkup and CTV’s Laurie Graham.

“Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau want to essentially nationalize the Kathleen Wynne payroll tax hike. This is very bad,” Harper told Kelly.

“And that’s why,” he didn’t tell the travelling reporters, though I believe he believes it, “your stupid questions about what Nigel told Ray about Duffy couldn’t more completely miss the point.”

The question now is whether Canadians agree with Harper.

Many often have. And indeed, I’m quite sure that, even today, the fascination for the minutiae of Ray Novak’s 2013 timetable is higher among lying pieces of s–t like me than it is among many voters. But there is an implicit tradeoff in the Wright perspective: that “our goal of circling the wagons” is worth it, and will be understood by a workable coalition of Canadian voters to be worth it, because it protects the Harper mode of government in general.

And the Harper mode of government in general is having a bad time of things lately. A new Abacus poll shows: the Conservatives seven points behind the NDP; negative perceptions of Harper at their highest point in 17 months; and positive perceptions at their lowest in a year. The portion of Abacus respondents arguing it’s “definitely time for a change” is up six points since last month. Compared against Trudeau and Mulcair, Harper scores seven points lower than the next-lowest leader on who has “good ideas;” 13 points lower on who’s “ethical;” 15 points on who’s “honest;” 15 points lower on who’s “accountable;” 10 points lower on who “understands people like you.”

Harper picked the moment of this campaign and, before it began, his government announced $14 billion in spending commitments. In both of his previous campaigns as an incumbent Prime Minister, the early days of the campaign began with polls showing a noticeable uptick in support for Conservatives. There’s been no such uptick this time. Harper believes the question of Ray Novak’s whereabouts is secondary to all the things he came into politics to accomplish. And he’s right. Three weeks into this campaign, what’s in jeopardy is everything he came into politics to accomplish.




Stephen Harper’s real problem goes beyond Mike Duffy

  1. I wonder if Harper is familiar with Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology whose trajectory is, in many respects, oddly analogous to Harper’s own career. Having, day after day on campaign, to start his 5-questions-maximum media scrum by rotely repeating the same response (“As I said yesterday, and I’ve been perfectly clear on this, the only two people, etc., etc….”), he must feel as if he’s been condemned to push the same rock up the same hill without respite.

    • Old-timers might remember an insightful commenter on the MacLeans boards who went by the handle of Sisyphus.
      He/She is missed. As is Guanilon.

  2. Seldom has the obvious been so clearly stated. Well done Paul.

    • Yes, great column. And to the point about the key decision fulcrum, at least for me, as a voter. I’ve chosen democracy.

  3. My octogenarian, voted Conservative all her life Mother has decreed it’s “time for a change.”
    Methinks there is a disturbance in the force

  4. “And then there was, towards the end of the night, the coup de grace, a man named Earl Cowan yelling at Chow, “Go home Olivia! Back to China!”, and when some in the crowd murmured reproachfully, added, as if by way of explanation, “She’s Chinese! She’s not Canadian!”

    He’s a distinguished looking fella, as Ford would say, all white hair and glasses and nice jacket. I figured perhaps he’d just inexplicably lost his cool – it happens – and approached him after to inquire. Someone beat me to the punch, and sarcastically thanked him for the racist remark.

    “Yeah,” said Cowan with a smile, “racism!” He was entirely unembarrassed and unrepentant. I introduced myself and gave it another whirl, but Cowan stood his disgraceful ground in the boneheaded, self-delighted, otherworldly way of Ford Nationals.”

    A man is known by the company he keeps…

  5. Article tries to stretch out and explain Harper and company’s delusions – or justifications for this cover-up, lies, etc… I think right now we better focus on the FACT that Harper has been lying all along – in front of media and in the House of Commons. He no longer has the moral right to occupy the Prime Minister position. That is forefront. We need to get rid of him asap – and THEN go ahead and analyze his scheming mind.

    • Exactly. As Harper would say – forget trying to understand; go straight to the punishment.

  6. In figure skating terms we (or at least some of us) can mark him up on
    technical merit and heavily deduct on style points. Not me. I hope they
    are dusting off a desk and chair for him at The Heritage Foundation or
    the Federalist Society.

  7. Not really a good student of History this PM. Perhaps Napoleon has met his Waterloo. But I have a feeling the pendulum swing to the Right is now moving back Left, albeit slowly. The world is seeing that austerity and prudent management is not working except making the rich just richer. As well, the world does not view despots kindly compared to entire nation corruption unless it happens to be a military junta

  8. Mr. Wells, I do believe you may well have nailed it here.

    People don’t commit unethical acts for the sake of being unethical. They do it largely because they truly believe whatever they are doing “is” ethical, albeit if only in a larger purpose.

    Stephen Harper, Angry Yelling Guy, Nigel Wright, and entrenched conservative partisans across Canada (okay, mostly Western Canada), have created a peculiar alternate reality where they truly, sincerely believe they are the only political entity that stands for taxpayer protection. It isn’t just a campaign line or branding effort, they truly believe this. They have also entrenched in their minds an equally sincere belief that all other alternative political entities exist only to bloat government to the point of exploding.

    So when you understand and accept that they have truly created this alternate reality, and they actually live their lives believing they exist within that reality, then the behavior actually begins to make sense.

    • In other words, they are delusional and are living out their delusions – to the country’s detriment.

  9. This would all be great if we even had a choice. We don’t. Our choices are: Lying, deceiving Harper, Flip flopping (right -leaning Liberal to lefty hugging NDP) Mulcair (who has had how many MPs quit on him?) or Pretty Boy, but big spending Trudeau. I don’t want Canada to have a dynasty, that is so tacky.

    So, what are the choices here. The Devil you do know, Harper who really didn’t handle the Duffy affair at all well, but at least he wanted to end it (would Trudeau care if his Senators were gouging at the trough?), the Devil you don’t Mulcair who is temperamental, loses candidates to other parties who say he is just as controlling as Harper and given he was being courted by the Cons to join them, then went to the NDP when Jack left an opening, likely just as fake and power hungry as Steve was, only worse because he doesn’t have any political principals other than wanting to be PM, at least Harper has always been a conservative right of centre guy. Mulcair was praising Thatcher during his Quebec days as a Liberal MLA, now he is a anti-war left leaning NDPer. Again, the Devil you do know vs. the Devil you don’t isn’t a great choice on election day. So, in the end, I’ll just look at their policies and what they say about the electorate. Anyone wanting to be the PM of all Canadians, shouldn’t be saying Christians are un-Canadian for starters (Mulcair in case that wasn’t obvious).

    • Ummm…. Trudeau has never appointed a Senator and booted the old Liberal Senators out of caucus and declared they are now independent of the Liberal party. Puffery? Maybe. But good on him anyways.
      You seem to be forgetting that the devil you know appointed Duffy in the first place – primarily as a guaranteed Senate vote, bobble-headed fundraising shill.
      In my opinion, voting for Harper is rewarding him, and I personally think he’s been in there long enough.
      Myself? I was robocalled last election and won’t even consider voting Conservative until Harper is gone.

    • The problem with choosing “the Devil you know”, as a strategy, is that it means that the incumbent is forever the favourite. Do you not think that, from time to time, it is necessary for a society to take the incumbent, give him or her a good stiff finger-wagging, and send him or her back to the other side of the house? The risk of losing an election is the only thing that can be used to keep governments honest. Sometimes we gotta go with the Devil we don’t know. After all, how many of us knew Stephen Harper when we collectively concluded that the Devil we knew in 2006 – Paul Martin – really, really had to go? Were YOU in favour of keeping Martin in 2006?

  10. …and here in Alberta (Harperland) this trial seems to have caused an type of “Entmoot” (Tolkien ref). A slow waking and painfully cautious debate: To unseat the betrayer or go back to being a forest. Had this election been the usual “sprint” instead of the current “long marathon” the Alberta forest of “do whatever you want in Ottawa, leave us alone” would likely have remained asleep.

  11. Yes, all true. But let me tell you a story:

    A couple days ago I went to an annual golf day. I drove with another guy I know slightly. On the way home we passed an election campaign sign.
    “Oh” said the guy “is there an election?”
    “Yes” I said “in October”
    The guy, in a slightly mocking tone: “Is that the one where Justin wants to be Prime Minister?”

    My point is that there are millions of under-informed people like my golfing friend whose buttons the Conservatives are very adept at pushing. Regretfully, I wouldn’t rule out another Harper victory.

  12. The whole point of referring to citizens as ‘taxpayers’ is to change the language and reduce the relationship to a simple financial transaction. It allows government to commit whatever crimes they want, whatever breach of ethics, as long as the ‘taxpayer’ isn’t out any money. Whereas a citizen might have a claim to trust, ethical behaviour, even ‘honourable’ behaviour, the taxpayer’s options are limited to a refund or future credit.

    Even as a taxpayer I object. Far from creating a small government, Harper has merely moved the bodies. Instead of positions that provided services to taxpayers, we now have a huge cohort of “communications experts” whose jobs appear to be nothing more than spin doctors, and an even larger contingent of spies. Taxes have not been cut, unless you are lucky enough to fall into the desired demographic groups who have received boutique bribes. Far from providing good government this government has trashed our international reputation, pinned our economic hopes on a commodity that has a limited horizon, and driven wedges into our communities with their ‘divide and conquer’ approach to campaigning.

    • Spot on

  13. How can anyone who has respect for the highest office in our country, no matter what stripe they are, have trust In a government that tries to create a cover-up to cover-up a cover-up. I have said many times here and will say it again, in the end, integrity and trust will be Harpers worst enemy. Harper has tainted himself and the office of the PMO, the smell in the office may never leave unless a new government is installed. If pundits and bloggers think this is business as usual in the highest office in the country need to look at themselves in the mirror and ask can we ever again trust anything that comes from the mouths of the Steve Harper government, and if they feel they can, well they are just as corrupt as the government to push the Harpers message.

  14. Wells is doing a “root cause” analysis.

    Harper and the Conservatives don’t believe in “root causes”.

    Just throw the bums out.

  15. Apparently, some conservatives do not have an issue with a member of the Stephen Harper ‘brain trust’ —Nigel Wright— providing personal funds to bribe a sitting senator to the tune of $90K to preserve the fairy tale of competence. Some individuals, including me, take exception when those occupying the halls of power break the law then are released from culpability based on political connectivity. Do we now have a two tier justice system as well—one system of accountability for regular citizens and a more favoured system which caters to the whims of political elites?

    It is foolhardy to argue that key players who hatched the plot to bribe senator Duffy are any less culpable than the sitting senator who accepted the bribe.

  16. This was a good read, as was Coyne’s today; you two should resurrect your back-and-forths.

    Anyway, not to oversimplify, but Isn’t this all pretty much the definition of sociopathy?

  17. the problem here as elsewhere in life,the person making thier own greif for themselves or others.
    rarely if ever look in the mirror and do the proper mea culpa.
    but rather it’s to blame and shame others.
    or others do it for them,think Bill Cosby only as an example.
    there is no way that Red Tories,Liberals,NDP or other politicians would have let it get this far.
    there would long ago have been RCMP checks,inquiries and arrest warrents at the ready.
    not here….just a bus waiting around the corner to leave the skid marks and time to act like nothing happened here

  18. A wonderful piece of writing. How refreshing. Shades of Roberson Davies. My sides hurt from laughing at the absurdity of the shenanigans. This is Canada’s Watergate. The more the attempted cover-up and denials the more gets exposed. Can we look forward to discovering the “tapes” and their “accidental erasure”.

  19. All this blather about who REPAID Duffy’s expenses. In the big picture, why do we care? What a joke.