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

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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.