Harper and Ignatieff on Guergis: variations on a set-piece scandal

Where's the wounded self-righteousness? The outrage?

Faced with scandal in their circles, political leaders can usually be counted on to adopt an air of wounded self-righteousness. For an extreme example, think Brian Mulroney. He never missed a chance to act the part of a man so honourable that he can scarcely believe it when perfidy is revealed around him.

I fully expected Stephen Harper to try on his own version of that familiar guise today when he had to announce, in the foyer of the House of Commons this afternoon, that Helena Guergis has exited her job as minister of state for the status of women, her unspecified missteps now the subject of probes by the RCMP and the government’s ethics commissioner.

But the Prime Minister surprised me. Rather than acting hurt and reeling and unbelieving, he presented this as an almost inevitable turn of events—part of the routine work of a man in his sort of job. No need for long faces.

“It’s a very sad day,” Harper told reporters, not sounding at all sad. “But, you know, in this business you get the brickbats as well as the bouquets, so when you confront these things, you deal with them, and that’s what we’ve done.”

How very workmanlike of him. He asserted that he was unhappy about whatever dubious conduct his junior minister had been caught in—he offered absolutely no details—but he didn’t appear angry or even particularly put out.

“Look, of course, I’m disappointed with this,” he said. “You know, of course, we all hope in these circumstances things will resolve themselves in a way that’s satisfactory to everybody.”

Of course, of course. In these circumstances. Spot of bother. No need for histrionics. Let’s be professional, shall we? So understated was his performance that I longed a bit for the operatic quality of Mulroney’s many confrontations with the media over scandals big and small in that very foyer.

Then Harper quietly departed, and a few minutes later Michael Ignatieff made his entrance. Ah, now we’d surely be treated to a bit of the classic repertoire: opposition outrage. Is there any other way to play such a scene?

Apparently there is. The Liberal leader adopted an ambivalent tone that was, in its way, every bit as novel as Harper’s oh-well attitude.

“Honestly, I don’t think Canadians want us to get in a bear pit over this,” he said, “because basically everybody ends up being tarred by this brush. That’s the problem here. I’m being honest with you here and it’s perhaps not what you’d expect.”

He had that right. I had been under the impression the bear pit remained a sure ratings winner. Was Ignatieff really signaling that his Liberals would be made to resist the urge to exploit this opening to the full partisan extent? Actually, for all his reticence, he wasn’t going quite that far off script.

“We will pursue it vigorously,” he hastened to add after expressing his distaste for what was, in a previous news cycle, termed the politics of personal destruction. “I’m in the opposition,” Ignatieff explained further. “It’s my job to do so. That’s what the citizens put me here to do and I will do it. But I do it with no pleasure.”

So we have here that sturdy political dramatic premise, the disgraced former minister under investigation, with some nuanced improvisations from those performing the set roles. The Prime Minister, rather than portraying the affair as a shock to his delicate system, treats it as routine political drudgery. The Opposition leader, instead of throwing himself into the part of defender of the nation’s honour with traditional gusto, winces at the unseemliness of the whole matter.

It’s heartening to see such innovation and creativity in our public life.

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