With the resumption of the Mike Duffy trial this week, Canadians are being deluged with behind the scenes information from the Prime Minister’s Office as they tried to manage the growing Senate scandal through various means. From the evidence presented, it looks like several senior staff members in the PMO had a hand in trying to keep things under wraps, whitewashing a Senate report on the matter, and even meeting with auditors from Deloitte in order to influence the findings of their investigation of Duffy’s expense reports and Nigel Wright’s infamous $90,000 cheque, or bribe, depending on how charitable you happen to feel. Since Mr. Duffy is currently being tried for Bribery among the many other charges against him, it seems like “bribe” would be the correct term to use as far as the Crown and RCMP are concerned, though it does seem odd that only the person on the receiving end of the alleged bribe is facing criminal charges.
The official story we’re being given is that Mr. Harper had no idea any of this was going on, and that several members of his senior staff, including his then chief of staff Mr. Wright, were only keeping him informed of the situation in the “broad strokes”, with no details whatsoever about the payoff or subsequent cover-up and attempts to keep the matter from being referred to the RCMP. If we take this version of events at face value and accept the notion that Mr. Harper honestly had no knowledge of the payoff or subsequent cover-up, does that actually make things better or worse?
Have Canadians really got such short memories that we’ve all forgotten the Liberals’ Sponsorship Scandal from 10 years ago that more or less brought down Paul Martin’s government and cast Jean Chretien as a crook? (I mean, there were plenty of things going into that image, but this was a big one.) Back then, the Gormery Commission came to the conclusion that while Chretien initiated the sponsorship program, and his PMO was heavily involved in the mishandling of funds in that affair, he was not personally guilty of any wrong-doing. As well, while Mr. Martin was Finance Minister and senior member from Quebec under Mr. Chretien, and was responsible for creating the framework under which Chretien’s PMO inappropriately dispersed funds, again the Gormery Commission found no evidence Mr. Martin had a direct hand in any wrong-doing. Thing is, when all of this was coming out, I don’t remember a whole lot of Canadians accepting the idea that Chretien and Martin were the innocent angels they presented themselves as, and the whole affair played a large part in Mr. Martin’s defeat at the polls in 2006. The choice I remember being presented with as I went to the polls was that either Mr. Martin was complicit or incompetent, neither one a ringing endorsement of his job as PM.
Now it seems like history is repeating itself with another PMO deeply involved in scandalous and even illegal activity, another Prime Minister making claims to “plausible deniability”, and another chance for Canadians to give some serious thought to the ever-expanding powers of the PMO. Going back to the question of whether the idea of Mr. Harper not knowing about a fairly involved criminal conspiracy to bribe a sitting Senator and to cover up said bribe makes things better or worse, what does the party line on this matter really say if we take a good hard look at it?
Sticking with the charitable side of things, we can take Mr. Harper’s word at face value and accept the idea that he really had no idea his Chief of Staff and a number of other senior members of the PMO and Conservative Party of Canada were working out a scheme to bribe a Senator, cover it up, attempt to pressure Senate officials into keeping a lid on it, and meeting for weeks with auditors from Deloitte with a view to influencing the results of their investigation of the Duffy matter. What does it say about Mr. Harper if we accept this claim that he was completely in the dark about several senior members of his staff and the CPC taking part in a conspiracy and trying to keep it away from RCMP investigation? If he can’t even manage his own office or party, what does that say about his ability to oversee the federal government? How many other shady deals could be going on right under his nose without him ever sniffing them out? How much corruption could potentially be working its way through the Conservative Party entirely out of Mr. Harper’s control if he can’t even spot some pretty serious wrong-doing going on in his own office? Is he fit to lead anything if he’s that oblivious to people blatantly abusing the considerable powers of his office for that long? Even when things started coming to light, the only person to leave the PMO was Mr. Wright (won’t even try to speculate on whether he quit or was asked to resign), while other key members of the behind-the-scenes dealings were promoted, including the PMO’s current chief of staff, Ray Novak.
The picture coming out of the email exchanges between Wright, Novak, and others is not a flattering one for the PMO at all. Bribing a senator is just the tip of the iceberg, it seems that officials from the PMO were wielding enormous power, even over the Senate, and completely unchecked by the Prime Minister if we’re to believe his official version of events. Senior officials in the CPC knew in advance about Duffy’s inappropriate expense claims, and were initially prepared to put up $30,000 to cover them until they found out the full amount and refused to pay it. Again, we’re being asked to accept that all of this happened without the leader of the party knowing anything whatsoever about it, aside from what we’re told are “broad terms” about Duffy paying back inappropriately claimed expenses. If the CPC and PMO really were keeping the PM in the dark to this extent, and for this long, doesn’t that say something really unflattering about how out of the loop Mr. Harper was with regard to his own party and office?
It seems that Canadian voters have to make a decision on this matter about what they believe, either that Mr. Harper was completely out of the loop in what appears to be an extensive conspiracy within the PMO and among senior leadership in the CPC. or he’s just lying to Canadians about his knowledge and involvement in the matter in order to hold on to power, and has talked people into committing perjury in order to cover for him.
Is either option really a strong recommendation for someone to continue to hold the highest office in the country? Maybe he’s not Machiavelli, but is Mr. Magoo really a better choice for Prime Minister?