Election 2015: Mike Duffy and the pursuit of control

How the Prime Minister’s Office tried to control the Duffy affair and how it lost control in doing so

Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in London, Ontario, on Wednesday, August 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in London, Ont., on Aug. 19 (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

“That absolute discipline or control . . . That is what got us into this mess in the first place.”

That—from Conservative MP Brad Trost, commenting two years ago about both Michael Chong’s reform efforts and the Duffy affair’s root cause—seems right. There is a lot going on here, but, ultimately, there is that: control. It was control that the Prime Minister’s Office pursued and, for awhile, achieved. “We will not set anything in motion without knowing where we want it to end up and how we will make that happen,” Nigel Wright explained on Feb. 11, 2013, referring to a proposal to deal with the question of Senate eligibility. Statements and “media lines” would later be drafted. A Senate committee’s report would be edited.

It was control the government lost when the details of the cheque were finally reported, precipitating an RCMP investigation, a criminal trial and the release of hundreds of pages of internal correspondence, all exposing more and more of what had been done to exert control. And it is control that the Prime Minister has been trying to assert ever since, despite his inability to control the proceedings in an Ottawa courtroom. And it is his control of federal politics that seems maybe now to be slipping away.

    Politics, as a practice, is about control. It’s about winning the control that comes with power, of course, but that’s about controlling the “message” and the debate and the narrative and your own image. Self-control, watching what one says and how one looks and where one goes, is required. Talking points are carefully crafted and incessantly repeated, backdrops and photo ops are staged and arranged. It is not quite theatre, but it is not quite spontaneous human interaction, either.

    In the late winter and early spring of 2013, control was a significant concern. “As the Senate-expense issues broke and intensified, your office has increased its interaction with senators as we try to manage the issues. What we have discovered is that the lines of communication and levers that are available to us on the House side simply are not in place on the Senate side,” officials in the PMO explained to the Prime Minister in a memo on March 22, 2013. “What we see is a laissez-faire system that requires constant direction, supervision and follow-up from your office to ensure that Government messaging and direction are followed.”

    An upper chamber that is free of the PMO’s supervision sounds actually like the sort of institution that might be useful from time to time. Particularly if the lines and levers of the PMO have ensured that there is very little that is laissez-faire about the business of the House of Commons.

    “This problem is not limited to expense and residency issues,” the PMO officials reported. “There are Senate committee reports that call on the government to lower airport rents, create a national pharmacare plan, invest heavily in Aboriginal education, and review our tariffs as a way of dealing with the gap in retail prices between Canada and the U.S.”

    Heavens. It is a wonder that the government and the nation were able to withstand the stress of such complexity.

    Of course, complexity is preferably avoided. The party caucus that sticks together is stronger. Dissent and contradiction are problems for a party leader and, thus, for a party. Differences of opinion can be exploited. Message discipline is what gets one elected—or, at least, a lack of it is potentially disastrous. Access and information must be carefully provided. Nuance is not appreciated. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

    Stephen Harper is semi-famous for his control—it’s right there in the title of one of the books about his time in office—and he has indisputably controlled the last decade of federal politics. His is a party that understands well the value of restraint and repetition and how little it can get away with saying and revealing. Indeed, unmoved by the old concerns and new questions that have been revived and raised by the uncontrollable proceedings in court these last two weeks, the Prime Minister has sought to impose control on the scope of the discussion. This, he has maintained again and again, is about just two people and a cheque. He has rejected the premise of the question, demurred from debating matters before the court and refused to “cherry-pick” facts.

    No doubt Harper will be happy to sit down when this is all over and patiently go over everything at length with anyone who should ask. But, this week and last, the Prime Minister has not budged. And so the only moment of expansiveness has come from the Conservative campaign’s other official spokesman, Kory Teneycke, who generously offered that it was “unfathomable” that Ray Novak would have known about about Nigel Wright’s cheque for Mike Duffy without telling the Prime Minister.

    The Conservatives should have known what the email trail would show—including the two-sentence note Novak should have read that mentioned Wright’s cheque—but what they might not have known last week was that Benjamin Perrin, another former aide to the Prime Minister, had already told the RCMP that Novak was in the room one fateful day when Wright spoke of the cheque. If someone did know, he or she forgot to tell Teneycke. Perrin repeated himself under oath on Thursday, so Teneycke became a cautionary example of what happens when you say more than necessary.

    Calling an election—the longest in modern history—to coincide with an inherently uncontrollable trial was surely a calculated move for control of the political agenda (the trial, in this case, competing with promises to help you buy and renovate a house). And even if it has subjected the Prime Minister to daily questions, that risk has long since been minimized. Each day there are just five questions—no follow-ups—and, as my colleague Paul Wells explained in The Longer I’m Prime Minister, this is quite purposeful. “This advice came from Jenni Byrne,” Wells wrote. “She believed that when Harper lost control of his message, it usually happened in one of two ways. Sometimes the boss became ‘Angry Stephen,’ getting way too hot for his own good. Sometimes he became ‘Professor Stephen,’ wandering off into theoretical discussions that left him saying something more interesting than what he meant to say. Interesting clips turned up on the television news. They obliterated message discipline. The longer Harper talked, the more likely Angry Stephen and Professor Stephen were to show up. According to lore around the Conservative war room, Harper’s 2008 mention of ‘excellent buying opportunities‘ amid global banking turmoil came in response to a seventh question.”

    The math is simple: The more one talks, the more likely one is to say something unfortunate.

    That can be put on a continuum beside invitation-only campaign events and the procession of Conservative backbenchers sent up before question period each day to repeat their party’s lines.

    The Prime Minister’s most serious slip on the Duffy file was in response to the 17th question he’d taken one afternoon in June 2013. It was then that he told the House that Nigel Wright’s decisions “were not communicated to me or to members of my office.” A month later, when that was found to be incorrect, Harper offered, “When I answered questions about this in the House of Commons, I answered questions to the best of my knowledge.” He’s never explained how what he said in June 2013 could have represented the best of his knowledge.

    Might he benefit now, as Michael Den Tandt suggests, from being more expansive? Maybe. But there is so much he could be asked to explain. And, once he started, he might have just provoked more questions. And anyway, why start now? He’s already made it this far, hasn’t he?

    The next question is: What happens next? Not so much for Stephen Harper, but about whoever follows him. Could his successor possibly cede some of the control that currently exists? Could the system withstand more complexity? Could the electorate, generally inattentive and perhaps willing to look past transparency concerns, so long as their preferred policies are being implemented, accept more complication? Or is simplicity the key to victory?

    Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has made interesting noises about changing everything, and has aligned himself with several of the proposals for reform that have begun to pile up. The NDP is committed, too, to empowering the parliamentary budget officer, and the next prime minister will likely have some incentive to be seen doing something to change the way things are done. But so, too, did Stephen Harper.

    In fair measures, control brings coherence, but in large doses, it suffocates. Could the next prime minister stand for dissenting MPs and committees that thought freely and an access-to-information system that worked properly? Could he manage regular news conferences with more than five questions? And could he dare let reporters again stake out cabinet meetings to question ministers (a practice Harper ended)? Could he take questions from the public?

    Put most simply: Could his office look at a problem such as what this PMO saw in Mike Duffy and decide that that wasn’t its problem to solve?

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