What should we expect of a Prime Minister? - Macleans.ca

What should we expect of a Prime Minister?

The sketch: Stephen Harper circa 2013 is reminded of Stephen Harper circa 2005


On Thursday, his last day to question the Prime Minister before a week-long break, Thomas Mulcair turned cruel.

“Mr. Speaker,” the NDP leader wondered, “does the Prime Minister remember saying about Paul Martin at the height of the sponsorship scandal that, and I quote: ‘I don’t think he’s been forthcoming and honest on fairly simple questions when there appear to be contradictions.’ Does he remember once thinking that?”

This was most unfair. These words of Mr. Harper were uttered in April 2005, long before he could have possibly known that one day his chief of staff would be caught manufacturing a secret arrangement to repay a senator’s expenses, thus bringing to light a number of allegations about who knew and did what to implement this scheme. Had Mr. Harper had any idea then that one day his chief of staff would cut a cheque for Mike Duffy, he surely would’ve been more forgiving of Mr. Martin. In fact, if he’d known that one day his premiership would be gravely rattled by something to do with “Conservative Senator Mike Duffy,” Mr. Harper might not have even bothered to pursue the office.

Back then, Mr. Harper was just a guy, wide-eyed and innocent, sitting in the foyer of the House of Commons, telling the anchor of the public broadcaster’s nightly newscast that “My instinct is when somebody doesn’t answer questions, even simple and fairly innocuous questions, in a straightforward manner there may be something else” and “I’m frustrated by the lack of forthrightness. When you’re under the kind of cloud the Prime Minister admits his government is under, I think you would use every opportunity to be as forthright as possible.”

Easy for that guy to say.

But what should we expect of that guy now? Or, rather, what do we expect of that guy now?

The first and easy answer to that question is probably “not much.” Not only because, as Paul has written, Mr. Harper has never shown any inclination to be an over-sharer—we will, sadly, probably never know what his favourite virtue is—but because we don’t really expect much from any of our politicians in this particular regard. Refusing to provide a straight answer to a simple question? That’s almost a requirement of the job, vague assurances being something on which the profession has forever been based. But, beyond that, disclosure and submitting oneself to scrutiny are ideas we have basically abandoned—if we ever really prized them at all—as primary expectations. Will we ever again, for instance, see a Prime Minister submit himself to something like a scrum, whereby reporters can insistently and repeatedly pursue him? Or, more importantly, will it ever be in a Prime Minister’s interest to do so?

In this case, the Prime Minister might actually have been better off doings things differently. He might’ve fired Nigel Wright on May 15. He might’ve explained who in his office was aware of what Mr. Wright had done, whether any attempts had been made to subvert the Senate investigation of Mr. Duffy’s expenses, what Mr. Duffy had been promised and whether anyone in his office was responsible for facilitating the arrangement between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy. The day after Mr. Duffy’s first speech to the Senate, Mr. Harper could have explained whether Mr. Duffy was threatened with being declared unqualified for the Senate. The day after Mr. Duffy’s second speech to the Senate, Mr. Harper could have explained precisely what legal fees of Mr. Duffy’s were covered by the Conservative party and tabled the invoice from Mr. Duffy’s lawyer. He might’ve ensured that the party had not paid for anything it shouldn’t have. Mr. Harper might’ve ended up having to fire a few more people, or explain why he held only Mr. Wright responsible.

Possibly Mr. Harper does not know everything about what has occurred here. But then he might’ve explained why he didn’t or doesn’t. As it is, Mr. Harper has said relatively little and what he has said definitively has only caused him more grief.

“On June 5, the Prime Minister claimed that no one in his office knew about the $90,000 payment to Mike Duffy,” Mr. Mulcair asked yesterday. “Did either Chris Woodcock or David van Hemmen tell the Prime Minister that statement was false?”

“Mr. Speaker, once again, the facts are that Mr. Duffy claimed publicly that he had returned money to taxpayers,” Mr. Harper offered as a response. “That claim was, of course, not true. He had received that money from Mr. Wright. He knew that was not true when he claimed it. I had not been informed of that. It is very clear to me that the sole responsibility for those actions rests with Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright. That is why they have been subject to the appropriate sanction and are under investigation.”

The Prime Minister has said that his statement of June 5—That Mr. Wright’s decisions “were not communicated to me or to members of my office”—was based on the information he had at the time. So either Mr. Wright was wrong when he told the RCMP, through his lawyer, that he had told three individuals in the PMO (two of them being Mr. Woodcock and Mr. van Hemmen) of his decision to repay Mr. Duffy’s expenses or the Prime Minister was misinformed or uninformed until the RCMP’s filings were made public in July.

In that and other regards, it is bit late for the Prime Minister now. But it’s possible to imagine him being better off had he cancelled or delayed his trip to Peru last May and instead come to the House immediately with an accounting of what had occurred within his office. He might’ve even then been able to raise his voice and wag and jab his right index finger and carried on in that way he does when he wants us to notice him being assertive. He could’ve threatened to kick out of his office and caucus anyone who had a primary role in manufacturing whatever scheme was in place here. He could’ve used the phrase “darn right” and his caucus would’ve sprung up and cheered his folksy displeasure. And Mr. Mulcair would have subsequently found it a bit more difficult to keep posing questions and burnishing his reputation as a tough and serious leader (new theory: Mr. Harper is taking a dive now because a strong NDP hurts the Liberals and provides the Conservatives an easier path to victory). Maybe Mr. Harper would’ve ended up looking every bit as strong as he and his advisors would generally prefer.

Now though it’s been five months and Mr. Duffy has gotten off two entertaining tales before his access to parliamentary immunity was revoked and Mr. Duffy’s lawyer is apparently handing over hundreds of emails to the RCMP and one of Mr. Wright’s friends is saying “there is a larger story here” and so we, and Mr. Harper, will just have to wait and see where this goes and what more might come.

It is entirely possible, of course, that Mr. Duffy is exaggerating the affair or that nothing he has alleged can be proven. Mr. Harper’s preferred version—that this all amounts ultimately to a matter between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy—might well win out. And then maybe these days and weeks of meeting incessant questions with a stubborn refusal to expound will prove worth it.

“Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition refers to a matter in which $40 million was taken due to the actions of a political party from the coffers of the taxpayers, and that money, for the most part, still has not been located,” Mr. Harper replied to Mr. Mulcair’s taunts about the Prime Minister’s comments of April 2005. “In this case, certain senators made claims that we do not believe were right or legitimate. We know that was done. We have taken action to ensure that those who did that have been held accountable.”

So there. At least until the Duffy affair comes to involve $41-million, Mr. Harper is okay.

It can be well argued that the biggest mistake Paul Martin ever made was launching Justice Gomery’s inquiry. It might’ve been the morally right thing to do, but it was politically poisonous—drawing out and adding to a bad story. Mr. Martin surely ceded any control he could have hoped to exert when he turned the matter over to the Justice Gomery and control is what the politician strives for and must, as often as possible, possess.

And perhaps Mr. Harper is exerting some kind of control on the Duffy affair now. But it is not clear how much control he has. And perhaps the greatest demonstration of control would have been disclosure.

“It would be an opportunity for the government to come clean and for the Prime Minister to restore the integrity of his office,” Brent Rathgeber said this week, explaining why he thought Mr. Harper should appear before a parliamentary committee and sounding just a bit like that guy who spoke to Peter Mansbridge eight years ago. “I think it is important that the Prime Minister do so because the integrity of the Prime Minister is fundamental to Canadians’ belief in their government.”

The Conservatives voted to defeat that motion on Wednesday night.

Even if it somehow gets worse for him, Mr. Harper might yet win re-election in 2015 if he can convince a sufficient number of voters that they’d still be better off with him than the alternatives. (And maybe Mr. Martin might’ve won in 2006 if he’d just been a better prime minister. That he won in 2004 is a reminder that the electorate can be tremendously tolerant.) He was found in contempt of Parliament in 2011 and only improved his seat count. Every election is a weighing of numerous factors and considerations, impacted by any number of events and coincidences. It’s never quite as simple as saying a government found in contempt must be punished at the ballot box. And if somehow this is the beginning of the end for Mr. Harper, that might have more to do with simply exhausting the electorate—that which fells every government eventually—than awakening any new demand for forthrightness.

As for Mr. Mulcair, we at least have him on record now as believing that a prime minister should answer straightforward questions in a straightforward manner. Perhaps in 2021, should he find himself then both occupying the prime minister’s seat and on the other end of questions about some matter of unseemliness that he’d rather not answer, opposition leader Trudeau or Kenney or Rempel or Calandra can remind him of that. And then he can sigh and say, “Well, at least I didn’t misappropriate millions in public dollars or let my chief of staff deceive me and the public.”

It is the circle of life. Or the hamster wheel on which we find ourselves. Or the spiral within which we find ourselves.


What should we expect of a Prime Minister?

  1. Stop making excuses.
    Harper promised us he’d be better – he wasn’t and clearly isn’t and in fact he is much worse, mainly because of that promise.
    His trained seals have put party before country and honesty and covered for him at every opportunity. That makes them complicit in his many mistakes, lies and cover ups.

    Anyone who votes for any of these bozos in the future has no right having kids, they will clearly raise them to be thieves and liars.

    • Anyone who votes for any of these bozos in the future has no right having kids, they will clearly raise them to be thieves and liars.

      Don’t you think that’s out of line?

      Every party has it’s base of rabid partisans, but elections are won with swing votes. These are good Canadians that give a fresh face a chance, but don’t sign in blood.

      Voters swing and so do pendulums

      • After 2 elections it wasn’t obvious that Harper had been full of it re transparency and accountability? And yet he not only gets in again, but with a majority?

        • Because right-thinking people across Canada knew he was the best of a bad lot. Deal with it.

          • Oh they are dealing with the consequences of your brand of cynicism – in Toronto , right now.

          • Oh that’s right — on the last federal election ballot, there was also a spot where everyone in Canada could cast a vote for mayor of Toronto. I forgot about that.

          • Right, so your point is not many of the core CPC base would choose Ford if they had an option. Pull the other one. That’s like saying we’ll never know if liberal partisans would vote Nenshi cuz they can’t.
            Granted lots of Cons vote for Nenshi, but it isn’t likely many are hard core Harper Cons. So, surprise me if you can.

          • My point is that it’s patently ridiculous for you to blame the phenomenon of Rob Ford on anyone other than the people who actually voted for the guy — all of whom happen to be in Toronto. You seem to be blaming the phenomenon of Rob Ford on anyone who voted CPC last election (including of course the vast majority of such electors, who live nowhere near Toronto). That’s absurd and idiotic.

          • If you took the time to read all of terry the cranks posts you’d know exactly what I meant and not draw absurd and idiotic assumptions of your own.

          • If Harper is the best, that speaks volumes about those who voted for him.

        • and Jr will be so much better, mr transparent, so transparent he dam near invisible. Jr wants to be civil a new breed of politician, yet during his misinformed I love China statement he attacked both the PM for wanting to be a dictator and the sun for reporting it. Yeh very civil Mr Trudeau, very civil….

          • Hey – it was Harper who just gave a speech in which he bemoaned the fact that his governing was being thwarted by all and sundry, including the courts. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest he admires the ability of the Chinese government to get things done.

          • Admiring the Chinese’s ability to get things done, and admiring their form of government are two very very different things. Harper took a strong stance against Chinese human rights abuses when he first became PM. Trudeau admires them. It’s a telling difference.

          • Harper took a strong stance against Chinese human rights abuses when he first became PM.

            And then he gave them everything they wanted at rock bottom prices to make up for lost time… or did you forget that Harper may have held those views once but now not so much. Now there’s a telling difference that you ignored completely.

            Jeez what a shill.

          • So what exactly did Harper give the Chinese at “rock bottom prices”?

          • Okay so you don’t follow the news and need others to do it for you.
            Mining companies in BC bringing in Chinese workers to work at half the wages that would be applicable to Canadians. By offering such wages there were no local applicants so by the rules regarding TFW boom the Chinese were able to bring in some home grown labour.
            Is that enough for you?
            Notice I didn’t even broach the idea that a totalitarian regime has been given the freedom to purchase companies here while no such reverse arrangement exists; so a one way deal could be construed as selling at rock bottom prices because no matter how much you put up to do the reverse it won’t happen. Also given the fact that so many top companies in Asia are State owned corporations and that state is China; then those powerful companies that are able to parlay the power of the state as part of their negotiating practice and are not really going to accept anything other than a price that suits them. That means it won’t suit us, well it might suit Harper but it won’t be what’s best for us.
            As an after thought, the fact that the only play in Harper’s books is natural resources and the only real players for them are Chinese State firms who have 1 billion guaranteed customers, do you think he has any option but to sell us out? After all when it’s a buyers market then shouldn’t the seller expect to be ripped off? And guess who put all their eggs in one basket?

          • God, what deranged drivel. The CNOOC deal, for example, was negotiated at arm’s length. There was no compulsion or coercion being forced on the target company mangement or shareholders to accept the deal. They were totally free to accept it or reject it, and the fact of the matter is that in Canada, target company directors and management are under statutory and common law fiduciary duties to sell at an acceptable price, and certainly at a healthy takeover/control premium. If you can’t understand that, then go take a basic course in commerce or commercial law. I’ll chalk your post up to that fascinating phenomenon known as “progressive xenophobia.”

          • So nothing on Mining companies and TFW? Fair enough.
            Nothing about FIPPA and the sweetheart deal for China.
            Disliking doing business with a human rights abusing, torturing totalitarian regime and bending over backwards to accommodate them in order to make he USA budge on pipeline policy is not xenophobia, but sucking up to them because they will underpin your entire economic programme is definitely “Conservative Treason;” not to mention it enables totalitarianism. Giving succour to such a regime and Harper arriving back in Canada waving bits of paper reminded me of one N Chamberlain; except the words were different – “Free trade agreement in our time.”
            So no matter how you try to spin this, Harper cheaply sold our resources and some of the jobs involved in extracting them to China , a terrible, despotic regime all in the name of his own economic policy. He also gave China a legal foothold here, while failing to negotiate a quid pro quo because he desperately needed to seal the deal, no matter what the future cost is to us.

            I’m not a xenophobe or racist for noting that business and Conservatives love their dictators and are prepared to over look human suffering if it will result in an extra penny on the dollar. I’m also not afraid to call them out on it despite the spittle flecked bluster and abuse one gets in return.

          • Harper took a strong stance against Chinese human rights abuses when he first became PM.

            And now he wants to emulate them.

          • Yes, if you bemoan the fact that you’re having trouble accomplishing your goals, it means that you long to become a dictator.

      • Ah taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions used to be part of the Conservative mantra, not so much any more I see.

        • The “consequences” of the PM’s actions are that the taxpayer hasn’t lost a dime, and a handful of crooked Senator’s are out of a job. Oh the humanity!!!!!

          • Are you testing a new talking point?

          • So I rob a bank.
            Wait until I’m caught.
            Pay back the bank.
            Boom it’s all good hey?

            How much tax payer’s cash has been spent trying to sort out this mess that is entirely of the PM’s own making? And how much more will be spent investigating attempts to bribe a Senator and the cover ups surrounding it?

          • 3.1 Billion?

    • I sure wish their was a ” Deep Throat ” around to get to the bottom of this PMO scandal. if not, will the C B C please commission the ” Fifth Estate “.

    • Get off your damned high horse, self-righteous know-it-all! Wherry isn’t “making excuses”; as you ignorantly assert, he’s merely trying to be objective, something you vindictive lefties would know nothing about.

      Good to see all the sanctimonious lib-left snots who pollute the twittersphere of CBC’s Power & Politics have slithered over here to spew their venomous, anti-CPC judgmentalness.

      • That’s funny because the high horse is where we usually find the holier than thou Reform Conservatives who are quite happy to beat up on the disenfranchised, unfortunate and just plain unlucky while expecting everyone to overlook their own shortcomings.

        Wherry was giving a variation of a “a pox on all their houses” argument,
        when for the last three Parliaments only one house has been devastating
        the country. So he was wrong.

        Harper made promises he had no intention of keeping, You clowns voted for him knowing this, You are the enabling part of Harper Con criminality and now you whine because someone calls you on it.

      • Objective!!!!…just another one of those words that has ceased to have any meaning in the mouth of a Harper Con. By the time you jerks are done we are going to need to invent a whole new language to describe political life. Like all fanatics you’re prepared to pull the temple down all together if you don’t get whatever the hell it is you want.

      • Speaking of venomous!!

    • So you’d take away the right of people who don’t agree with your political party to procreate? Forced abortions, I assume? Or would you simply jail them for exercising their God given human rights?

      Can we also assume you find it acceptable to murder political dissidents, like they do in China, who’s form of government Justin Trudeau admires so much?

      Don’t think I’ll be voting Liberal when it seems the party thinks that disagreeing with their policies should be a punishable offence.

      • You can assume whatever you want. It’s what passes for research for you.
        People with a functioning intellect understood what I meant, so the fact you didn’t shows your character only too well.

  2. More like “Groundhog Day” as directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

  3. Denial is a sickness
    People get it like religion
    A beacon in our bodies
    That we fly towards like pigeons
    A curtain that we draw
    To keep us hidden from the people we were yesterday

    S. Fearing 1993

  4. Maybe Harper can run on…’At least i don’t smoke crack.” in 2015?
    The bar to get over in public life for a Conservative pol seems to getting ever lower.

    • But Rob Ford is a good friend and a solid core conservative and Harper would like to support him publicly, but has instead sent word privately that Rob should “never call me again.”

  5. As Harper and Ford have again shown, the more incompetent and corrupt you’re proven to be, the more the right loves you. Throughout history the right has supported criminal dictators and thugocracies.

    • More commonly referred to as “authoritarians” if they’re our guys,and leftist dictators if they’re not.

      • Leftist dictators like the Chinese dictatorship Justin Trudeau admires so much?

        • The fact that you’d swallow that line whole should surprise no one.

  6. Here is a question to consider: should the Prime Minister of Canada be a citizen of the Republic of France?

    • Yes! THAT is the most important aspect of being Prime Minister. Whether he or she is also a dual citizen of another country.

      Who could possibly care about ethics, abuse of power, and competent government.

    • Should the Prime Minister of Canada be an prominent professor teaching in a world reknowned university another country?

      Your comment suggests that idiot level nationalism is a good idea.

    • Here’s another question: Should a PM who promised honesty, openness and accountability show at least a modicum of same?

    • What if the nation elects a Poet and Playwright? How is he qualified to run a country?

    • How is someone who worked in mailroom, never found for a job by himself, and never left the country once, qualified to run a country?

      • I find it incredibly hilarious that you Liberals think you can campaign against 2006 Stephen Harper. And you still need to resort to lying about him. Where was Justin Trudeau in 2006? Smoking blunts between white water rafting gigs? Or was that the time he was busy working part time as a substitute drama teacher?

        • So, you don’t have an answer to the question either, do you?

          • Tricky Ricky has only one answer – lie, shout, lie some more.
            PMO talking points in other words.

          • Are you suggesting Stephen Harper was given the Prime Minister’s job by someone he knows? Are you suggesting that all of the international meetings he’s been to as PM were all inside of Canada?

            I won’t answer because it’s a stupid question that has no basis in reality.

          • Your comprehension of the sequential nature of space-time phenomena is abysmal.

    • Well, it would certainly make it easier for him to answer the question about his favourite country other than Canada.

      • LOL, thumbzup for making me laugh.

      • Trudeau didn’t say that China was his favorite country other than Canada. He said he admires the Chinese form of dictatorship.

        • No.

          • He said it plain as day. Why do you people keep lying about things that he’s clearly said on video?

  7. “new theory: Mr. Harper is taking a dive now because a strong NDP hurts
    the Liberals and provides the Conservatives an easier path to victory”

    Don’t know if this was tongue in cheek, but I certainly do think this is a major part of the election strategy in 2015. Which is not to say I necessarily believe it is the motivator behind their Senate scandal strategy.

    Still, expect to see more opportunities for Mulcair to shine at the expense of Mr. Harper as we get closer to the election. Trudeau cannot compete with Mulcair in the House.

    • Trudeau doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. My prediction is that he’ll lead the Liberals to an even worse defeat than Ignatieff did. People at least knew that Ignatieff was a smart guy, Trudeau not so much. When opinion columnists start calling your leader stupid, you know you’re in trouble.

      • And your boy with his constantly changing story over the bribery of a Senator has a clue?
        Clearly Harper is in this way over his head and is hoping that something he says might make it all go away. Might I suggest he look at what happened in TO when Ford tried it.

      • Not when those opinion columnists write for the Sun.

        Still – bold prediction. Some may even call it the wishful thinking of a desperate conservative. I guess time will tell…

        • Oh right, I forgot “real” voters only read leftist rags and that conservative opinions don’t count.

  8. Of course, there is Harper’s other famous statement from that time:

    “At worst, he personally ordered it done and chose the people who executed the plan. At the very least, he fostered an attitude within the party […], chose the managers of the people who committed these crimes and completely and utterly failed to exercise any oversight, supervision or leadership.

    In the end, it doesn’t really matter where [his] actions or lack of them fall on that scale. He is the leader and a leader is responsible for the actions of the people he leads. If he had a right or honourable bone in his body, he’d admit that and resign immediately.”

    (Thanks to harebell for posting this a while back).

    • So, if nothing else, Harper has demonstrated that he’s fully familiar with the modus operandi he now denies using.

    • Harper has already admitted that he told Duffy to repay the money. And I still fail to see how taxpayers got fleeced because Nigel paid it back instead of Duffy. What matters is that taxpayers were made whole, and we were.

      • Price of the investigation, price of lost time, price of lost confidence.
        I bet you think these things have no dollar value right?
        But beyond that how about the price paid in terms of trust and faith in good governance?

  9. A Prime Minister should be an individual who leads by example and with integrity. Leading a country and nation, a Prime Ministers should understand that he needs leaders by his side NOT Staff and business friend. As a leader, a Prime Minister should be empowering any and all leaders to work not with him or for him but for the good of the people first of all. A Prime Minister should be as accountable for his action as the company he keeps; and his parties failures of governance!

  10. In response to the headline, a little honesty for a change would be nice. Haven’t seen much of that from this government.