For all the attention and scrutiny that should be applied to what occurred before the revelation of an arrangement between Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy, and for all the lessons and meaning that might be derived from how the Prime Minister’s chief of staff came to cut a cheque for a sitting senator, it’s also worth considering everything that then ensued, or didn’t ensue. The response to crisis is often as illuminating as the crisis itself.
I have played around with this counter-factual before, but let’s air it out more fully: What if the Prime Minister had just admitted everything about the Duffy-Wright affair as soon as he was able to ascertain the details?
In this scenario, let’s imagine that as soon as Wright walks into his office and tells him about the cheque, Stephen Harper demands a full explanation of everything that occurred in and around his office’s involvement in Duffy’s situation—keeping in mind that it’s entirely unclear whether he even actually did that much. Or, at worst, after hesitating for a few days, he launches an internal investigation upon accepting Wright’s resignation. We might imagine he gets the clerk of the privy council to investigate. Or maybe he simply asks for a full report from one of his deputy chiefs of staff.
He makes a speech in which he says he is looking into the matter and offers some commitment to promptly report back to the House of Commons on what occurred here. Within a few days, or a few weeks or a few months, he stands in the House of Commons and explains it all: the cheque, the discussions between Wright and Duffy, who was involved, who knew what, how Irving Gerstein was or was not involved, whether the Conservative party ever considered covering Duffy’s disputed expense claims, the PMO’s involvement in the editing of a Senate committee report, the covering of Duffy’s legal expenses and what exactly he himself knew about any of this. Perhaps he expresses deep sadness with all of it and vows that nothing like this will ever occur again.
Could he have done that? Would it have been politically feasible? Would he now be any better off? Could he have acknowledged only some of it and still claimed transparency?
More esoterically, what should we expect of a prime minister in this situation?
Consider the editing of the Senate committee report as part of this counter-factual. If he acknowledges that, does he condemn it? Can he condemn it without implicating himself? Does acknowledging it only raise questions about the executive’s general involvement in the affairs of the legislature?
Maybe he leaves that part out of his first explanation. But then, what happens when it is revealed by the RCMP’s filing? Possibly, then, it hurts even more, because he is seen not simply to have been evasive, but to have been evasive while wanting to appear transparent.
At the moment of explaining everything (or some things), he might have had an opportunity to explain what he was doing in response to the affair—maybe people get fired, maybe he declares a new approach for the PMO in dealing with these sorts of things, maybe he comes up with some kind of wacky plan to draw a line between himself and senators.
Depending on how elaborate your imagination, you might picture a contrite prime minister promising to re-evaluate his general approach and the conduct of his office. You might even imagine the public appreciating such contrition.
Does that all play out better for him than how these last 14 months have actually played out? It’s tempting to sayit would have been better for him to have put everything into the public domain in one fell swoop, rather than deal with periodic revelations over the course of several months, revelations controlled not by him, but by others. But would being the one to explain everything have actually put more focus on the unsavoury aspects of this affair? Is it somehow better to have a less-clarifying release of information, rife with claims and unconfirmed details?
Would the Prime Minister have been appreciated and rewarded for his transparency? Or would he have been punished all the same? Or would he have set a precedent for disclosure that might have been unhelpful in the future?
The enduring lesson of Paul Martin’s experience with the Gomery commission might be that inviting thorough scrutiny is a bad idea if you value your political welfare. But I might suggest two caveats: that Gomery didn’t necessarily doom Paul Martin, and that there is a significant difference between disclosure and a commission of inquiry. The Gomery hearings dragged on for months, with various moments of revelation. This might have stopped short of that. And maybe a different (better?) prime minister would have survived it. (Kathleen Wynne might be the counter-factual Paul Martin.)
Of course, there’s one possibility that complicates all these hypotheticals: Perhaps the Prime Minister simply underestimated what the Duffy-Wright affair was, or would, become.
For sure, it’s possible to imagine why full disclosure would not, obviously, be the optimal choice. Full disclosure might seem like the antithesis of politics, except if it seems as though it actually offers more control.
Perhaps the Prime Minister, in being so up-front, would have displayed an uncommon level of straightforwardness (not simply for him or his government, but for his profession). Perhaps to demand such straightforwardness is to hold Harper to a higher standard than others have demonstrated. (I’d be very interested in a debate on the historical standards and practices of straightforwardness in Ottawa.) Perhaps, at some point, it becomes too late to adopt such straightforwardness as a general operating procedure. Surely it is worth asking whether NDP Leader Tom Mulcair or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau would be any more straightforward.
But there’s one principle that might take precedence over all practical considerations: that we should demand straightforwardness from those who hold and seek public office (no matter how often they fall short of that, and no matter how much we’ve come to expect less).
While we’re playing fantasy baseball with the Duffy-Wright affair, we might as well consider one other possibility: Should Parliament have played a greater role in investigating what occurred here?
Let’s imagine that House committees operate with a generous degree of independence from their party leaders (stop giggling, I’m trying to be serious here). And so, let’s imagine that the Conservative members of the House ethics committee, or even just a couple of them, wanted (or could be compelled by public sentiment) to launch hearings into the Duffy-Wright affair. In a minority government situation, that likely would have occurred, opposition MPs no doubt giddily voting to pursue such a study, if they, collectively, held a majority on House committees. In this case, the Liberals raised the idea of having the Prime Minister testify, but it went nowhere.
You might argue that the government is already held to account via question period, but the time limits and atmosphere of that forum don’t allow for extended and deep interrogation, nor, of course, does question period provide an opportunity to question individuals who are not MPs. You might argue that a House committee is no place to conduct a serious inquiry, but I refuse to give in to such defeatism.
So, perhaps, maybe even if the Prime Minister had offered his own accounting of events, the House ethics committee would have convened hearings and compelled testimony from all of the principals and, by now, we would have some semi-official accounting of what occurred. (One other thing to consider: whether a full(er) explanation from the Prime Minister might have made committee hearings more or less likely.)
The alternative is everything we’ve witnessed over the last 14 months. All things considered, how badly have things gone for the Conservatives? Nearly nine years into forming government, they have a decent chance of still holding government after the next election. Would they be better off if Harper had handled the Duffy-Wright affair differently? Maybe, but that’s not obvious. The last 14 months have been rather inelegant: the several days it took for Wright to exit the PMO, the explanation of June 5 that would come to raise questions about what the Prime Minister had done to inform himself of what had occurred in his office, the semi-regular revelations from the RCMP’s court filings, Duffy’s two speeches in the Senate when the Conservatives moved to suspend him, the changing account of how Wright came to exit the PMO, the sight of the Prime Minister having to stand and, variously, answer or evade question after question from the leader of the Opposition, and Paul Calandra’s pizza store analogies. But, hey, the Conservatives still have a chance of forming another government.
There is now the prospect of a trial, with whatever else might be revealed as a result. But, crucially, that trial could come after the October 2015 election.
We will likely, eventually, have some kind of full accounting of who did what, so this might all be academic. But we might have expected to have it more promptly. And we might hope that our political leaders and our political system were more typically the source of such accounting. For all the practical and political complications, for however little we expect it, transparency is still a worthy demand.