By Jim Harding
Harper has been fairly successful at shaping supportive public perception while end-running fundamental transparency and accountability. He’s used everything from attack ads and compulsive talking points to muzzling. The conservative base has given him the benefit of the doubt and with the aid of his economic mantra, “Jobs, Growth and Prosperity”, he’s successfully pushed matters of democracy to the back burner.
The senate scandal and show trial are whittling away at his undemocratic practices. If the wider public connects the dots between the scandal and Harper’s abandonment of science, the environment and his assault on governance and the public interest, it could be toast for him in 2015. A lot has yet to play out, but Harper’s attempt to control public perception is presently failing.
The senate scandal has its roots in an attempted cover-up of the PMO’s chief of staff issuing Senator Duffy a $90,000 cheque to repay expenses that made Duffy a political liability. The deal was part of a larger strategy to keep the “gross negligence” of several high profile Harper-appointed senators out of the public eye. But the larger world didn’t co-operate: Alberta’s super-flood forced the Conservatives to postpone their Calgary convention and to buy time Harper again prorogued parliament until he could hit the political reset button with a cabinet shuffle and new Throne Speech.
The day after the Throne Speech Harper sped to Europe to take credit for a draft EU free trade deal. The intent was to ride this wave of success into the rescheduled Conservative convention. But the RCMP now has ongoing criminal investigations of the tainted senators and past chief of staff. Harper’s newly appointed chief of staff and other high officials may also be implicated in the scheming.
Conservatives are now locking horns in what could become a zero-sum fight. After months of public shaming, Harper-appointed Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau are challenging the fundamental credibility of Harper himself. Though holding his past chief of staff Nigel Wright solely responsible for the deal with Duffy, the heat generated from ongoing half-truths and story changes continues to envelope Harper. The practice of using beholden, junior parliamentary secretaries to do all the pre-scripted messaging for the PM has failed and Harper has had to come out fighting, trying to establish himself on the moral high ground as the tough leader who holds his past celebrity senators to account.
But it just doesn’t ring true. Except for Harper’s hard-core true believers, millions of Canadians are getting concerned about what’s in store for Canada if Harper gets away with this one.
Not being able to change the channel, Harper has had to change his tune. Initially he defended the spending of his celebrity senators, even when they used tax-payer’s funds to do Party fund-raising. He did this publicly with Wallin and certainly had to know Duffy’s residency arrangement when he appointed him. As public anger grew over questionable residency and travel expenses, the PM decided some money had to be seen to be being paid back. Harper told Duffy directly with Wright present; it seems Wallin was told by his enforcers. Before Wright wrote his cheque, the Conservative Party even considered paying back some of Duffy’s costs on the side.
It’s tempting to get on the bandwagon calling for suspension without pay, though no criminal charges have been laid. But we know that when Parliament was prorogued the Conservative senate caucus was meeting in secret as judge and jury to decide what punishment to deal out. The decision was checked with the PM himself, and Harper is no fan of the Charter of Rights. Then Harper replaced Marjory LeBreton, Conservative senate head, as she was too embroiled in the double standard audits.
And who is Harper’s new senate boss and sponsor of the motion to suspend the ex-Conservative senators? The Oct. 26, 2013 The Globe and Mail reported that Claude Carignan is yet another failed Conservative politician who lost badly in 2008 and then went to the senate. Prior to that, he was an active member of Quebec’s Action Democratique and a supporter of the “yes” vote in the 1995 referendum on Quebec separation. All kinds are apparently drawn to and used by the centres of Harper’s power.
Duffy says he had “misplaced loyalties” and Wallin says she’s not willing to voluntarily offer her “head on a plate”. They now talk like born-again liberals, upholding the Charter and due process. Apparently when entitled insiders become the target of a show trial, they too can realize that centuries of sacrifice for democracy is worth it, that due process can’t be allowed to be pushed aside for political expediency.
A few Conservative senators and MP’s who still think with their conscience are breaking rank. Hugh Segal, one of the few remaining PC Senators has led the charge. Past party president Senator Don Plett says he won’t support this assault on due process. The targeted senators are all fighting back adding new allegations. Brazeau says he was offered a backroom deal by Carignan if he publicly apologized for misusing public funds, even though Brazeau has not admitted any such guilt. Duffy has now released evidence that his legal fees were paid for by Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton in this “monstrous fraud”. According to the CBC this is the same Bay Street lawyer who helped broker the merger of the Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties and has since represented Conservative MPs over alleged robocall infractions of the Elections Act. Grass-roots party supporters may soon become upset with how the PM, supposedly elected on a platform of accountability, has been wielding power.
Harper became PM supporting an elected chamber of sober second thought. But that was then, part of the ongoing right-wing populist strategy to marshal public resent against “elites” and chip away at voting until they got their 2011 majority. The end-running of democracy then escalated and we got omnibus bills that rammed through ideological objectives without parliamentary due process. Our international reputation as a moderate, progressive country was soon being squandered.
THE BACK BURNER
Harper hoped his chief of staff would sacrifice his feet to the fire. However, Wright’s revelations to the RCMP began to unravel Harper’s version of events. First Harper defended Wright as “honourable”, then, five days after the public disclosure of the “hush money” he said he accepted Wright’s resignation. Most recently Harper says he dismissed Wright. First he said no one other than Wright was involved, now he says “very few people” were informed, while the list grows. When asked direct questions Harper simply repeats well-rehearsed answers that divert all wrong-doing to Duffy and Wright. Others may yet be implicated and Harper may yet get burned by his own fire.
But the senate scandal is clearly part of a larger pattern. Harper’s first majority-government legislation abolished the Canadian Wheat Board without following the rule of law and it’s been steadily down-hill since then. His greedy appointment of party partisans to the point that, with only 30% of the popular vote, the Conservatives now control 60% of the unelected senate seats, exposes Harper’s political makeup. This could be his Achilles heel. Might it be the Achilles heel of the senate too?
A bully whose enforcers are caught will deflect and if necessary attack old comrades to protect power. And bullies can work their way up the hierarchy of our fragile, first-past-the-post electoral system. That is why we must always defend due process and the rule of law, respecting those who came before and sometimes gave their lives for our rights.
Millions of Canadians are capable of seeing the wrong-doing of Harper-appointed senators milking the public purse for partisan purposes, while also seeing a back-room arranged show trial as the threat it presents to our country. Two wrongs don’t make a right. It appears though, that democracy is itself vulnerable in Harper’s misguided quest to make us a superpower of unsustainable energy.