The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Rick Anderson, Jim Stanford and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Richard Mahoney:

Mike Duffy confirmed this week that which most observers of Canadian politics had long believed to be true. And that is this: nothing happens in this government, or in the Conservative Party of Canada generally, that is not directly authorized and directed by Stephen Harper.

Harper has prided himself on being a master player of the political game. But his thin reed of a defense that Nigel Wright wrote the cheque to Mike Duffy, acting alone, was blown apart. We now know that he himself ordered the expense be reimbursed. And that his office reinforced the message with actions and threats. And that many knew about the payback plan.

He and his government now face the biggest political crisis of their career. And there is a lot of this story left to come.


Jim Stanford:

The PM's team will try to manage this by arguing that what Harper strictly said (that he didn't know about the CHEQUE) has not been explicitly refuted.

Will that work? Not sure. But I think his base will bleed a bit more, which means trouble.

For anyone who believed that the PM's Chief of Staff would write a cheque like that without ANYONE else knowing about it, I have some sub-prime mortgage bonds I'd like to sell you.  


Rick Anderson:

This week was one of those parallel universes weeks in Ottawa, where people saw what they wished to see and heard what they wished to hear. For anyone really trying to bear down on the facts, they were hard to find amidst all the "PM implicated" headlines. Implicated in what, actually?

According to Senator Duffy, the PM told him to repay the housing allowance that the PM (and many others) believe Senator Duffy should not have claimed. 

Meanwhile, Senator Duffy has asserted, even more vigorously than previously, that he does not believe he has done anything wrong, will eventually be vindicated, and is a victim of partisan political wars (on both sides).

Not too many are going to fault the PM for having none of it, and simply telling Senator Duffy to square up, but there are many with a preordained view of the PM who will never see it through his eyes.

And, the recurring theme throughout, again on all sides, is trying to deal with complex, potentially legal facts and arguments in a political hothouse, with low regard for fact gathering, verification and due process.  

Richard Mahoney:

Rick's line of argument, while not inaccurate, underlines the PM's strategy to date - keep this on the thin line of the impropriety of the cheque that Nigel Wright wrote, allegedly on his own.

That is no longer the most important issue in this saga.

The important issues are: why did the Prime Minister order this scheme? Why did he and his senior staff, and his Senate leader, try to influence Senator Duffy's conduct? Why did the Prime Minister say Wright acted alone, when we now know dozens of other people were involved? Why did Senator Gerstein refuse to reimburse Mr. Duffy's expenses?

This is all a very serious blow to the Prime Minister's integrity - he will want to answer that.

It also blows apart his role as the chief strategist and tactician of the Conservative government.

This is a tough blow to his reputation. He will have to answer all these questions, and soon.


Jim Stanford

Another concern, in addition to the credibility of the PM and the government, is how the political side effects of the events will affect real policy in unexpected ways. A government that will be focused, as this one will be now, on its political survival above all other priorities, will do strange and often counter-productive things that all Canadians may pay a price for.

For example, consider the strange saga of Mr. Harper's trip to Brussels last week to sign a piece of paper he called a "trade deal," but in reality was just a PR "opportunity."

They've been working on the deal for years. It will take months, if not longer, for the remaining items to be resolved. Why did that ceremony occur in Brussels last week? We've never seen anything like that occur in trade negotiations before.

It's now clear that the whole thing, rushing to get SOMETHING signed, was part of the Tory strategy to manage the hurricane they knew was coming. After every question about the Senate in Question Period the other day, the PM responded with a reply about the CETA (non-)deal.

This is optics-driven for the government, but it has real consequences. Once the government has signaled so clearly to the Europeans that they NEED this deal as part of a desperate political strategy to survive,

Canada's bargaining position evaporates. The EU knows Canada cannot walk away.

This is just one example of how the political desperation that this Senate affair has created will have real and lasting consequences for Canadians, regardless of how the politics eventually pan out.  


Rick Anderson:

Huh, we've never seen a trade agreement ceremony before> What about this one, for NAFTA?

Anyway, back to the issue de jour. Richard, if the opposition parties have now adopted the view that repayment of wrongly received housing/travel allowance is no longer required, that's news to me. If repayment is still their view (isn't that what they been asking for?), aren't they demanding the same thing as did Harper?

Richard Mahoney:

There is so much to write about the morality and ethics of this whole saga.

I think the issue that is the most damaging for the Prime Minister is this: it appears that he and his cohorts will bend/break the rules to win, and will coerce others to do so.

In the "in and out" scandal, many Conservative candidates claimed they were "forced" by the Harper campaign to go along with the illegal scheme - a scheme that resulted in convictions against the Conservative campaign.

In the "robocalls" scandal, we now know from the Federal Court that the Conservative Party's own secret weapon database on Canadians, known as CIMS, was used in that electoral fraud scheme.

There is the Chuck Cadman saga, in which the Prime Minister denied knowledge of the attempt to influence Mr. Cadman by offering him a million dollar life insurance policy in return for his support:

Prime Minister Denies His Party Tried To Bribe Late MP

In the end, rational people will ask themselves: what kind of people are these? Do they represent my values, my interests? They will insist that their Prime Minister behave in a way they can support and admire. They will find this conduct troubling, or worse.

Rick Anderson:

In my view, the most serious underlying problems here are:

First, that the Parliamentary rules for these things are fairly unclear and changing - partly honour system, partly fixed and partly ad hoc.

Second, that possible transgressions of the rules are being dealt with badly, as retroactive application of new rules or interpretations, and as political issues to be fought in a political manner rather than in any due process.

I think Richard's endpoint highlights a larger question; Not only what kind of people do we have running the country, but how healthy are our governance processes? The mushy core of this problem involves possible transgression of Senate housing and travel expense rules.

The facts of this have never really been clearly established: the independent auditors (Deloitte) who reviewed them said the housing rules were too contradictory to make a determination. The Board of Internal Economy - an intensely secret, partisan body with zero public accountability or legitimacy - steps in and apparently starts micromanaging the matter, with the inevitable selective partisan leaks soon following. Public furor ensues, everyone starts snapping to premature judgment. The PMO goes into issue management mode - a mistake, since the PMO is not supposed to manage the Senate, nor play prosecutor, judge and jury on individual Senators. But a reflexive mistake, since whatever theories of governance we used to have are routinely trampled with common misperceptions - across the board - that the PM must explain everything, fix everything, be responsible for everything.

That's wrong, but in the broken governance model we are evolving it seems natural that he not only should take ownership but actually must. And, then we complain (correctly) about over-centralized power.

The current misstep in this saga is the rushed motion to suspend sitting Senators without due process - in fact while at least two due processes are underway and incomplete (namely the AG audit and RCMP investigation).

This is only going to get worse, as other cases emerge. Another one came out Tuesday, accompanied by another rush to judgment that something probably commonplace around Parliament (Parliamentary staff assisting their employers with daily routine tasks of a personal nature) is now simply held out to be "wrong." Maybe we should discuss that, rationally? But that is expecting a lot when the mud throwing starts, and it is certainly in full play.

Bottom line: a lot of folks may have made mistakes here, and it would be best if we all took a deep breath and asked ourselves how best to handle all of this, in a more sensible, deliberate manner.

But I am not holding my breath.


About The Salon

Rick Anderson is former senior adviser to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Jim Stanford in an economist for Unifor; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Posted date : October 24, 2013

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