The Bev Oda affair and the Tories’ scandal-management strategy

What does it take to get fired in Ottawa?
What it takes to get fired
Sean Kilpatrick/CP;Adrian Wyld/CP

To say that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s actions in the affair that’s put her at the centre of a parliamentary uproar were indefensible would, strictly speaking, be inaccurate. When it comes to a beleaguered cabinet minister, there’s always a way to mount a defence. But Oda’s situation had turned so dire last week that the defensive postures open to the Prime Minister and his front-bench political lieutenant, House leader John Baird, look severely limited. If the controversy is, at its root, about integrity in Parliament, it is also the most extreme test yet of Stephen Harper’s willingness to stick by a minister under a sustained opposition onslaught.

That assault is expected to resume in the House after this week’s mid-winter break for MPs. By now the outline of the saga is widely known. In 2009, Oda rejected a church-based aid group called Kairos for renewal of its long-standing Canadian International Development Agency grant. She called the rejection a “CIDA decision,” but it turned out top CIDA officials had signed a note recommending approval of Kairos’s funding. That memo was later altered when the word “not” was penned in before “approve.”

Oda told a House committee she didn’t know who inserted the “not,” only to admit later that she had ordered the doctoring of the document. “Any reasonable person confronted with what appears to have transpired would necessarily be extremely concerned, if not shocked,” House Speaker Peter Milliken said after reviewing the facts.

Against that sordid backdrop, and amid howls from the opposition for Oda’s head, Harper tried to radically alter the terms of debate. Ignoring the core question of whether Oda had misled the House, he asserted that what was really at issue was the right of an elected minister to refuse to be dictated to by unelected mandarins. “This is what democracy means,” Harper said in question period. Never mind that nobody disputed Oda’s right to overrule advice from CIDA officials. Baird went even further down the same track. “She is a minister,” he said, “who made a difficult and courageous decision when it came to not awarding a grant in this regard.”

Their staunch defence of her contrasts with two earlier cases. Maxime Bernier had to resign as foreign minister over leaving official documents at the home of his girlfriend. Helena Guergis was dumped as a junior minister, and even kicked out of the Tory caucus, over allegations concerning the conduct of her husband, former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, that remain unproven. But both those episodes were about individual conduct, not Conservative policy, or any actions of the Prime Minister’s Office or other cabinet ministers.

What it takes to get fired
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

So cutting Bernier and Guergis adrift effectively solved Harper’s problem without risk of widening the circle of culpability. But Oda’s actions fit a policy of scrutinizing long-standing funding recipients. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney later suggested Kairos was cut off over its stance on Israel. Opposition MPs speculate about PMO string-pulling. Admitting fault on Oda’s part would invite more probing along all those avenues. Standing by her can be made to look like standing up for principle. It’s the same approach Harper took when he refused to remove Gordon O’Connor as defence minister in 2007, after O’Connor had to apologize to the House for misleading comments he made concerning Afghan detainees. The detainee policy, not just a single minister, was in play. (O’Connor was quietly shuffled out of Defence a few months later.)

Harper’s casting of Oda as a courageous democrat, against charges that she’s a bumbling dissembler, amounts to a bet that Canadians will care more about how his ministers handle bureaucrats than whether they respect Parliament. The issue of misleading the House has “resonated with journalists,” says McGill University political science professor Stuart Soroka, “but I don’t have a sense of whether it resonates with the public.”

Harper prides himself on running a government that knows how to distinguish what preoccupies the media from what matters to voters. Indeed, his discipline in not worrying much about the former was a political leitmotif in 2010. Early last year, Harper’s prorogation of Parliament, suspending House sittings in January and February, sparked opposition outrage and a Facebook-driven popular backlash. But the Tories bet the move wouldn’t hurt them for long, and the polls soon proved them right. Last summer’s outpouring of insider angst over Harper’s cancelling the long-form census followed the same pattern—a big issue around the Hill that failed to drag down the Conservatives’ buoyant polling numbers.

But those were issues of process and policy. If Harper is able to keep Oda in cabinet without paying a political price, the implications for future scandal management in Ottawa could be significant. Scott Reid, a former top adviser to prime minister Paul Martin, has an unsurprising take on Oda—that she should be fired. But Reid is also watching the affair unfold with the same analytical curiosity as other veteran political aides who’ve helped manage past cabinet crises. He says a minister under siege has traditionally fallen into one of three categories: “on the ropes” over errors they’ve made, but not over serious ethical or character lapses; “an embarrassment” because of some glaring instance of poor judgment, but possibly worth saving; and “guilty of a firing offence,” of which the undisputed examples are talking to a judge about a case or “deliberately and obviously misleading the House.”

At least, those used to be the undisputed firing offences. If Oda survives, misleading the House might have to be downgraded to Reid’s second tier of awkward but not necessarily fatal. Of course, the Conservatives aren’t conceding that Oda lied. They offer the following explanations. She was asked in a House committee who had inserted the word “not” in that document, and honestly said she didn’t know, but would have fessed up to having ordered the alteration had she been asked how the change came to be made. And when she said in a written answer to an opposition question that de-funding Kairos was a “CIDA decision,” she meant in the sense that “CIDA encompasses both officials and the minister responsible for CIDA.”

Milliken must now decide is there’s merit in those fine lines of defence. The House Speaker has been asked to rule on an opposition motion claiming Oda violated MPs’ privileges by misleading them. She might eventually be found in contempt of Parliament, which would be unprecedented for a cabinet minister. Yet Carleton University political science professor Jonathan Malloy isn’t sure even that would matter much. Malloy says Canadians generally view Parliament now mainly in terms of party wrangling. They cheer for one side or the other based on their partisan inclinations. “If this goes further as a contempt-of-Parliament matter,” he says, “it just becomes an extension of the partisan battle.”

And that might be an acceptable outcome for the Prime Minister. Casting the Oda affair as a mere partisan squabble over parliamentary niceties could allow him to save a minister, and avoid handing his enemies a win on a point of principle, with a possible spring election in the wind. If he succeeds, any cabinet minister’s future missteps will have to be viewed in the changed light of their much improved chances of surviving scandal.