The worst month in the history of Canadian politics

Rob Ford, Nigel Wright, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, electoral fraud, patronage, robocalls...
Aaron Wherry
Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a photo opportunity on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 30, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Brent Rathgeber, the tall, nerdy Conservative backbencher with a blog had apparently been coaxed yesterday to one of the House foyer’s three microphones by a question about the transfer of Omar Khadr to a prison in Edmonton, the city from which Mr. Rathgeber hails. Soon enough, Mr. Rathgeber was being asked about the matter of Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy, a politician at a microphone inevitably attracting other reporters with other questions.

Mr. Rathgeber said he believed the Prime Minister, but that what the Prime Minister didn’t know raised questions about the operations of the Prime Minister’s Office. He worried about the power of the executive over the legislature. He said it was now for Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy to answer questions. He said the Conservative party’s supporters were angry. And then a reporter asked if he had a response to the news that Mr. Duffy had apparently once wanted to be a cabinet minister.

“Well,” he said, “I think it just reinforces what I said to one of the first questions as to why I haven’t commented on the story. It’s because the story changes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, now minute by minute. I hadn’t heard that.”

Shortly thereafter, the NDP’s regularly indignant Charlie Angus arrived at an adjacent microphone. “If the Prime Minister came clean, people might feel more reassured,” he offered. “I’ll tell you, when you go back home to the Tim Horton’s and you talk to people, they are upset. And they want answers.”

Finally, to the middle microphone, escorted by NDP MPs Andrew Cash and Craig Scott, walked Eric Peterson, television star of Corner Gas and Street Legal. Mr. Peterson had apparently been in the Speaker’s gallery for Question Period, invited as a recipient of the Governor General’s award for lifetime artistic achievement. And he had apparently walked out when he heard the Heritage Minister, in the process of attempting to fend off NDP questions about the Duffy-Wright affair, attack the idea of income averaging for those employed as artists.

“I can’t too strongly express my disappointment,” Mr. Peterson said, “that the Minister of Culture at a moment when we’re supposed to be honouring artists in this country chooses to insult them.”

And with that just about everyone could now claim to have been disappointed by something that occurred in the past 31 days.


Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Nigel Wright and a $90,000 cheque for a sitting senator. Rob Ford and a video that allegedly shows the mayor of Toronto smoking crack. Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and questions of housing allowances, travel expenses and per diems. Electoral fraud. Illegal robocalls. Patronage. Thomas Mulcair and an envelope from the mayor of Laval. Tyrone Benskin and his unpaid taxesAn investigation by Elections Canada frustratedThe Parliamentary Budget Officer frustrated againA provincial government that ignored the legislature reelected. The RCMP has come calling on the Senate and the Senate has deferred to the RCMP. The mayor of Toronto’s chief of staff has been fired and four of the mayor’s advisors have quit. The Prime Minister’s chief of staff has resigned and two of the prime minister’s chosen senators have departed his caucus.

There have maybe been a darker day or two or a more singularly profound scandal, but have we ever seen such a sustained onslaught of the dispiriting, troubling and unfortunate in the space of 31 days? Have we ever experienced a month like this? Perhaps without the most salacious items, this would have amounted to an only slightly worse month than usual. But then maybe that is an even greater indictment of the state of things.

If there is anything that those most troubling matters—Mr. Ford and the video, Mr. Wright and the cheque, the 2011 election and the inappropriate phone calls—have in common it is how little we know about whatever has occurred. Has the mayor of Toronto smoked crack in the past six months? What were the details of the arrangement between the Prime Minister’s chief of staff and a senator? Who was involved in calls that misdirected voters during the last federal election?

Of the conduct of the mayor of this country’s largest city, the actions of the most senior advisor in this country’s highest office and the proceedings of our last national exercise in representative democracy, we are left to guess at the particulars. And in the absence of clarity there can only be insecurity.


Sean Kilpatrick/CP

On the evening of April 21, 2005, Paul Martin addressed the nation on the matter of the sponsorship scandal—the great shame that would rightly bring an end to that Liberal government nine months later. After the prime minister had pleaded his case for the camera, the leader of the Her Majesty’s official opposition spoke with the host of the national broadcaster’s nightly news.

“I’m frustrated by the lack of forthrightness,” Stephen Harper explained. “When you’re under the kind of cloud the prime minister admits his government is under I think you would use every opportunity to be as forthright as possible.”

Eight years and one month later, on the evening of May 23, Mr. Harper spoke to reporters who had travelled with him to Cali, Colombia.

The first question was perhaps a bit presumptuous, but still basically the question of the moment. “Prime Minister, if you didn’t know what the terms of the agreement were between Mr. Wright and Senator Duffy before, you do now,” the reporter posited. “So what were the terms of the agreement, and in both official languages, if you could?”

“Well, I think Mr. Wright has been very clear,” Mr. Harper offered in response, “and I think it’s been very clear. Mr. Wright gave Mr. Duffy money so that what he felt that the right thing should be done, that Mr. Duffy should repay the money he owes taxpayers. That’s my understanding. Obviously Mr. Wright will be answering to the Ethics Commissioner on the propriety of those actions. At the same time, as you know, Mr. Wright has departed my office because he did not inform me of these actions, and should have.”

A few questions later, another reporter attempted to follow up.

“Thank you, in answer to the first question, you said that the deal between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy was very simple, that it was just giving Duffy money to pay back the expenses,” the reporter recalled. “There’s a great deal that suggests it was more than that, including the fact that lawyers were involved in drawing up the agreement. Will you commit to disclosing that agreement?”

Mr. Harper pleaded ignorance. “I’m not aware of any formal agreement on this. Mr. Wright has told me that this was the nature of his actions. Obviously he will be answering to the Ethics Commissioner on those facts and on the appropriateness of those actions.”

It is tempting here to pile up more questions—about the arrangement between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright, about the allegations of what Mr. Duffy was promised and what he was ordered to do, about the Prime Minister’s use here of the word “formal” in referring to possibility of an agreement. But let’s only recall Mr. Harper’s standard for Mr. Martin and pose this question: With these answers, was the Prime Minister being forthright?

It is possible to argue he was. It is the assurance of his office that the Prime Minister is aware only of the details of the arrangement between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy cited in his first response: that Mr. Wright provided personal funds to Mr. Duffy so that Mr. Duffy could repay the money he owed the Senate. So maybe here the Prime Minister has been forthright.

It is an unfortunate possibility then—if, say, the allegations about various other details of the arrangement between the chief of staff and the senator are at all true—that the Prime Minister is not fully aware of what has occurred within his office.

And that likely thus begs the question of what precisely the Prime Minister has done over the last two weeks to ascertain all of the details of whatever was occurring within his office. Forthrightness would seem to involve him explaining both how he has attempted to educate himself and whatever else he might know that might provide potential context to whatever occurred between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy. While we wait for Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy to unburden themselves and for the various authorities to decide if there is anything here that requires their intervention, the Prime Minister might at least give us that. (He might also provide any relevant correspondence or documents in the possession of his office.)

By comparison, the matter of Rob Ford and the video purported to show him smoking crack is relatively simple: the failure to account for himself, and that he has let his refusal to account for himself overtake his administration, is a dereliction of duty. No politician should be asked to account publicly for all moments of his or her life, but of a matter this serious it is simply not acceptable that the mayor would leave voters to parse the tense of a statement like, “I do not use crack cocaine.” If the standard is forthrightness, Mr. Ford has failed miserably.

Thirdly then is the matter of the “open sore, weeping steadily into the political environment,” as Colby Cosh put it the other day. Forthrightness would seem to have to involve the Prime Minister, as leader of his party, explaining everything he and his party have done during the past two years to understand what occurred during the 2011 election and to ensure his party’s resources are never used for improper purposes. We should have every reason to believe that the next election will be conducted without widespread chicanery.


CP/Adrian Wyld

Of course, if forthrightness were to be offered now it might seem truly remarkable—a foreign sound to our ears.

As a profession, politics is, of course, about differing visions and versions. And any comment on the current state of things is complicated by comparisons that beg to be made: Wasn’t it always thus? Has it really gotten any worse? Hasn’t it, in some ways, only gotten better?

But here is another question: Can we say that we conduct our politics in a sufficiently forthright manner? Maybe the answer to that question can only ever be no. Maybe we should only ever demand more and more. But consider how poorly we fare now. How little we seem to be able to know. How unable our politicians seem to be to have a conversation about much of anything. How unwilling we seem to be to hear anything more than that our taxes will be lowered.

The government’s primary method of communication is publicly funded television ads that offer little more than slogans—”Responsible Resource Development,” “Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity.” The access to information system remains a mess. We know relatively little about how the government plans to balance the federal budget. Presumably, the consolidation of the government’s computer systems will solve most of the shortfall. The government introduced a Parliamentary Budget Officer, but seems reluctant to cooperate with it. Elsewhere there is mostly nonsense. The debate over resource development and climate change is mostly about the patriotic quality of the Keystone XL pipeline, the degree to which a carbon tax might destroy everything you hold dear and whether or not you approve of jobs. The issue of further reducing crime apparently depends on whether you side with criminals or the law-abiding. (Is there an alternative approach to which to aspire? It is difficult to say. The New Democrats seem to have learned some lessons from Conservative success. Justin Trudeau’s promise remains a fuzzy dream.)

Our political representatives might not actually think we are idiots, but they would seem to understand that we are not paying terribly close attention and comport themselves accordingly. The talking point has made an ability to discuss mostly unnecessary. A willingness to discuss is basically to be discouraged. If you’re explaining, you’re losing. At the very least, we would not seem generally interested in much of a discussion. It is now maybe less an exercise in humanity than a matter of marketing: a battle between pitchmen, a contest of commercial mascots. Twas ever thus, perhaps. But while the free flow of information and expression has seemed to become something we prize as one of the principles of our era, our politicians have made message control their preeminent hallmark of competence.

And perhaps that is not an entirely unworthy goal, but now, in these moments of crisis, our political actors seem incapable of reacting sufficiently. Mr. Ford is now nearly a walking satire of modern politics: enthusing about lower taxes even as nearly everything else about the governance of the city of Toronto seems to be chaos.

At some point such grousing about the present becomes a pointless plea that someone should do something to make things somehow better. None of this is to pine unrealistically for some Bulworth fantasy. At least not without realizing how silly that is. It is surely not all bad right now. And each of these controversies will pass, one way or another.

But, in general, we seem to have a communication problem and the makings of a downward spiral. These reasons to doubt the integrity of our politics require, for the sake of our politics, answers. There cannot only ever be more reasons to dismiss the possibilities of the political. That way only leads to further crisis. Mr. Harper was correct. What we need is forthrightness. Perhaps even in the hope that a general expectation of forthrightness might prevent future calamities from occurring.

So politician, explain thyself. And let us understand that we deserve whatever befalls us if we do not demand as much.