Wright resigns. Stephen Harper, and questions, remain - Macleans.ca

Wright resigns. Stephen Harper, and questions, remain

Paul Wells on the PM and his stewardship of your tax dollar


From the Harper profile John Geddes and I wrote two years ago:

Someone who was there paraphrased Harper’s message to his ministers at his first cabinet meeting in 2006: “I am the kingpin. So whatever you do around me, you have to know that I am sacrosanct.” Harper was telling his ministers that they were expendable but that he wasn’t. If they had to go so that his credibility and his ability to get things done were protected, so be it.

“It wasn’t personal,” this source said. “It was his office.”

The doctoring of a Senate internal economy committee report to erase some references to Mike Duffy’s conduct was perfectly consistent with Stephen Harper’s long-standing preference for making questions go away rather than answering them. Nigel Wright’s resignation is an expression of Harper’s style, not a repudiation of it.

Already this morning the Conservative pity party is arriving at a run, violins at the ready, to play sweet odes to the purity and self-sacrifice of poor lonely Nigel Wright. But questions remain about a cheque nobody has seen, an extensive campaign to cover up Duffy’s actions that cannot plausibly have been the work of one man, and a government that remains more eager to clap itself on the back for its ethics than to answer any question about it.

It’s really sweet that Stephen Harper believes he cannot win a fair fight of full information in the light of day, but as an operating principle it is getting tired. The desire to bring every debate to a screaming halt rather than engage the debate is one of this prime minister’s two or three most obvious defining characteristics. It’s obvious even where scandal is not involved. As one example among many, the Supreme Court reference on Senate reform this autumn will hear three days of public arguments the Harper government did everything to avoid, first by stalling for years on the very notion of a reference, and then by asking the Court, pathetically, to bypass public argument and go straight to delivering an opinion.

We will see more of that in the days ahead. It is easy to predict, based on long observation of this prime minister, that any question about what this government did, what this prime minister’s Senate appointees did, how Harper’s office handled it, and what will be done to fix these attitudes in the future will be answered with, “Nigel Wright gave up his job. Isn’t that enough? It’s time to move on.”

If that is the response of this government, the Conservative party and its assorted cheerleaders to legitimate questions about Stephen Harper’s stewardship of your tax dollar, then you should understand Wright’s resignation as merely an extension of the runaround we have been getting for months.

A note on Wright himself. I never met him. I tried; he declined, gracefully and politely. Nobody I know has ever had a word to say against the man. I am told he is more hard-working than almost anyone, and as upstanding a fellow as politics ever sees. There are such people in Ottawa. Stéphane Dion is another. While Wright has been chief of staff — longer than either of his predecessors, Guy Giorno and Ian Brodie — work shifts in the Langevin Block have grown longer as a sort of competitive masochism set in, but this government’s ability to make a decision, tell its story, satisfy the Conservative back bench or convey any sense that Stephen Harper knows why he ever wanted a majority in the first place has flickered weakly like a guttering candle. That’s part of Wright’s legacy too. It will be part of Harper’s, if he doesn’t reverse the trend he’s on.