Why the PM is no match for Mike Duffy

Paul Wells sets the scene for the Conservative convention

Ben Stansall / Reuters

By late October the mess in the Senate had become so appalling that Stephen Harper had to try something new to get his message out. He called three talk radio hosts, selected with his usual care: John Gormley, a former Conservative MP in Saskatchewan; John Tory, a former Ontario Conservative party leader in Toronto; and Jordi Morgan, a former Conservative candidate in Halifax. It’s time to cut off the salaries of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, Harper told the hosts. “That’s what Canadians expect,” he told Tory. “When people abuse a position of trust at this level and over this time period—and this clearly—that there will be appropriate action taken that, frankly, removes them from the public payroll.”

Yeah! You tell ’em, big guy. Where did Duffy get the idea he could get away with his outrageous behaviour, after all? It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but on Oct. 28 Duffy rose in the Senate to explain precisely where he got that idea: from everyone who worked for Harper, for months on end.

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“I am told that you complied with all the applicable rules,” Nigel Wright, the PM’s then-chief of staff, wrote to Duffy last Dec. 4, “and that there would be several senators with similar arrangements.”

By “similar arrangements,” Wright meant a situation where senators lived in Ottawa while claiming a housing allowance as if they were visitors to Ottawa from some other place. Such a scheme seems hard to defend, yet in a 2009 memo, Christopher McCreery, the Conservatives’ house expert on the Canadian honours system, managed the feat with little difficulty. “So long as a senator owns property in his or her province of appointment,” McCreery wrote, “then they are allowed to sit as a senator from that province, even if they live in Ottawa 99 per cent of the time.”

McCreery sent that memo to Duffy and Wallin three weeks after they became senators. How well did Harper like that advice? This well: After writing the memo, McCreery was appointed to a panel advising Harper on the choice of the next Governor General.

Wright was, for months, at pains to soothe Duffy’s nerves. When Marjory LeBreton, then the government leader in the Senate, announced in February that wrongfully claimed housing allowances should be repaid “with interest,” Wright hurried to reassure Duffy. “I had no foreknowledge” of LeBreton’s statement, he wrote. “When I learned of it I asked for all unilateral action from that office to cease,” which is a fancy way of saying he had told LeBreton to put a sock in it. “I was not pleased.”

The message from Harper’s office for months on end was that anyone who tried to mess with Mike Duffy would face the wrath of the Harper government. As late as April, the Conservative party’s own lawyer, Arthur Hamilton, covered Duffy’s legal expenses to the tune of $13,560. When Wright finally wrote his own personal cheque for $90,000 to cover Duffy’s excess housing expenses, it seemed at the time an aberration. In context, it was the last step before one of those 180-degree turns that sometimes characterize the Harper manner: Back Duffy, back Duffy, back Duffy, pay Duffy’s lawyers, pay Duffy, get caught, cut Duffy off.

To be sure, Duffy is an unreliable witness. With his back to the wall, under police investigation and accused by his former caucus colleagues of a concerted and extended program of expense account falsification, he could be expected to come up with any explanation that might make him look a little less culpable. And in his brief exchanges with selected radio hosts, Harper made the whole business sound like an annoying game of he-said, she-said. But that’s why Duffy’s decision to table all the memos I just quoted is so devastating to the PMO’s side of things. Harper is now in his sixth month of saying as little as possible about what happened in his office. The game is not he-said, she-said; it’s they-won’t-talk, he’s-got-email-transcripts.

For a guy with so little to say about what transpired between Duffy and Wright, the Prime Minister has some trouble keeping his lines straight. “The reality is Mr. Duffy has not paid a cent back to the taxpayers of Canada,” Harper said in question period on Tuesday. “The fact that he hasn’t and the fact that he shows absolutely no regret for his actions—and the fact that he has told untruths about his actions—means he should be removed from the public payroll.”

Not a cent. Got it. Except here’s this news release the Prime Minister’s Office sent out in May, on the day the Wright-Duffy deal was revealed: “Mr. Duffy has reimbursed taxpayers for his impugned claims,” the release said, after acknowledging that the source for Duffy’s money was Wright’s personal account. In a fit of cheek, the release sent out by Harper’s accredited spokesmen suggested that two other foundering senators, the Liberal Mac Harb and the Conservative Patrick Brazeau, should live up to Duffy’s moral example.

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So Duffy reimbursed taxpayers, until the Prime Minister needed to say he hadn’t. Wright resigned, until the Prime Minister needed to say he had been dismissed. Memos and emails from the PM’s top men said Duffy was doing nothing wrong, until Duffy became too much of a drag on the Conservative brand. Situational ethics is normally a sin Conservatives reproach in Liberals, not one they try to excel in.

This mess has now been going on for a truly impressive amount of time. The PMO’s attempts to orchestrate an end to the crisis through harsh sanctions for Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin in the Senate were quaint, because they recalled so many previous efforts to turn the page. On May 21 Harper delivered a tough speech to his caucus in front of television cameras, promising a new era of accountability in the Senate. In July he shuffled his cabinet to put a fresh face on his team. In mid-October he delivered a new Throne Speech to give the team an agenda. Later that week he flew to Brussels to sign the outline of a trade deal with Europe.

The notion that Duffy and Wallin will tone down their efforts to bring Harper down with them if he manages to cut off their only means of earning a living is a wistful fantasy. If anything, desperation will make them double down. And because Harper remains intent on offering no complete, coherent and consistent explanation for what the hell was going on in his office under his name, the voluble ex-broadcasters who until recently adorned his Senate caucus remain free to fill in the blanks.

There is nothing quite so sad as a containment strategy that no longer works. Harper is a past master at strategic leaking, but all year he has had to play catch-up while Duffy leaked against him. He hopes the Conservative convention in Calgary, postponed from springtime, will play like a larger version of his carefully calibrated talk-radio interviews a week earlier: convention events run three days, but no reporter will be permitted to witness any of the business of this national political party until Harper delivers his keynote speech on the evening of the second day. Surely by now Harper would have learned that idle repertorial hands don’t produce friendlier coverage.

In an on-camera breakfast with reporters during the 2008 election campaign, Harper chatted about the elaborate post-game analysis he orders after every election. The goal is to fix everything that can be fixed, he explained. That includes his own performance. Other leaders might keep making the same mistake, he said, but he would try at least to make different mistakes every time.

He was being too optimistic. Human nature is stubborn. Character can’t be amended to satisfy the diktats of a campaign analysis. Harper got where he is today, for good and ill, by refusing to explain or apologize if he could at all avoid it. He has spent most of 2013 using that attitude to dig his way out of a mess that is a direct product of that attitude. The same stubborn streak that earned him his spot in the history books will be on full display on the day, however distant, when his career ends.

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