Guergis, Bernier, and the PM’s secrets

PAUL WELLS: What the scandals say about Harper’s management style

Sean Kilpatrick/ CP

Every act tips its author’s hand, and with Helena Guergis’s departure from cabinet we are beginning to understand what it takes for Stephen Harper to remove a minister.
In these matters it will never do to set the bar too high. Harper did not invent the dud minister, and a rule of thumb established by a long line of his predecessors holds that undue haste in firing a minister for garden-variety offences—simple incompetence, inertia or unflagging incuriosity (breathe easy, Lawrence Cannon)—sets unhelpful precedents.

But twice Harper has reached the end of his rope with a minister. First Maxime Bernier left cabinet, now Helena Guergis has. In each case the last straw was similar. Weeks of public controversy didn’t do it. Harper greeted the revelation that Bernier’s girlfriend Julie Couillard was a biker moll with public protestations that mere gossip couldn’t be germane to Bernier’s worth.

He mustered comparable nonchalance at the stories about Guergis’s airport tantrum, the coverage of her husband Rahim Jaffer’s arrest for drunk driving and drug possession, and the news that her staff spent a surprising amount of time writing letters to the editor marvelling at qualities in the junior minister that eluded a broader audience. Even when the Toronto Star reported that Jaffer, settling with some difficulty back into life in the private sector, had bragged about his political connections to shady business associates in a Toronto strip joint, Harper stood by his minister.

To a great degree, Harper’s insouciance in the early stages of the Guergis controversy should come as no surprise. The Prime Minister has his own history of tense relations with air transport. In 2005 Harper flew back from war memorial ceremonies in the Netherlands with then-prime minister Paul Martin and his fellow opposition leaders in a vile mood. He rejected his assigned seating near the front of the airplane and scolded Martin’s photographer, Dave Chan, for trying to take his picture. “You do not have permission to be taking my picture,” he said.

After the 2006 election, a Globe and Mail columnist reported that Harper was not thrilled when a Canadian Forces pilot asked him to turn off his BlackBerry for landing. The pilot, the paper reported, was reassigned. The PMO protested after the column appeared that Harper does not own a BlackBerry, a narrow defence indeed.

But onward. With both Guergis and Bernier, a moment came when Harper was finally ready to cut the offending minister loose. Both times it happened quickly. Both times the weight of the last straw was at best debatable. Bernier left a classified briefing book behind at Couillard’s house. Now, a lot of stuff gets stamped “classified” in the nation’s capital that would surprise no one and harm no interest. But no matter: out the door went Max Bernier’s toned and coltish ass.

Guergis, in turn, was ratted out with a stack of allegations—tropical bank accounts, slush funds, suggestions that there might be photos of the Guergis-Jaffer couple in close proximity to hookers and blow—delivered by Derrick Snowdy, a private gumshoe who would later turn out to be $13 million in the hole and curiously willing to pause from his investigations to shop his choicest nuggets around to one political party or another (he had tried the Liberals before knocking at the Conservatives’ door).

But before any of that extenuating information came to light—Snowdy’s debt, his chattiness, the fact that the whole lurid mudbath was based on the claims of Jaffer’s associate Nazim Gillani, a cheerful braggart who would waste no time distancing himself from his own allegations—Harper had announced Guergis’s departure from cabinet, her suspension from caucus, and his speedy notification of the RCMP and the ethics commissioner.

Now here’s what connects both cases. With Guergis as with Bernier, Harper withstood weeks of public controversy. Then he cut his ministers loose as soon as he had private information his adversaries and the Canadian people didn’t yet possess. Well, “information.” A flimsy tissue of gossip might, in Guergis’s case, be the more accurate label. But what mattered was that after weeks on the defensive, Harper could be one step ahead of everyone else.

Being one step ahead is a special feeling. No politician in our time values it more highly than Harper. His eagerness to price his own insider status higher than its realistic value in the political market is turning out to be a consistent weakness.

He had great fun appointing Michael Fortier, a dapper Montreal lawyer, to the Senate and his cabinet in 2006. Ha! Nobody saw that one coming. But Fortier had no perceptible impact on the Conservatives’ fortunes in Quebec, his relations with the Harper PMO became a constant thorn in everyone’s side, and the way he combined extravagant scorn for the Senate with a cushy post in the same chamber detonated Harper’s credibility as a parliamentary reformer. The benefit wasn’t even close to being worth the cost.

Later, Harper lost a minister due to resignation, not scandal, when he implemented a 180-degree turn on the notion of recognizing Quebec as a nation without bothering to inform his own intergovernmental affairs minister, Michael Chong. And of course the classic case of Harper believing he would astonish and amaze everyone with a sudden move was his decision, five weeks after the 2008 election, to eliminate public funding for political parties.

A lot of people actually think that’s a pretty good idea. That it handicaps the Conservatives’ opponents disproportionately because they have not developed a comparable ability to appeal to private donors is no skin off many voters’ noses. Harper’s plan would have attracted some support to the Conservatives, at no cost, if he had simply campaigned on it when he was supposed to be telling people his plans for government.
But this Prime Minister cannot help himself. If he knows something you don’t, he values that thing out of all proportion to its true worth. So he sprung his party-financing scheme on his opponents and an unsuspecting country and provoked the entire lurid coalition-prorogation psychodrama of late 2008. And he took the dime-store novellas peddled by Snowdy on Gillani’s say-so at face value, simply because he was privy.

In some ways that instinct is a product of the Conservatives’ minority status in a Parliament where every opposition party, a consistent majority of the electorate and the bulk of the press gallery sits well to the government’s political left. That’s inclement weather for a government that would like to survive for a while, and Harper has survived it by playing a particularly ruthless brand of game theory.

The easiest game to win is a game of asymmetrical information, where one player knows more about his opponents than they know about him. Harper spends a lot of time setting up that steep gradient between what he knows and what everyone else does. During the 2006 election, one Conservative staffer was assigned to stake out the coffee shop where Liberal staffers would pause from long days in their party’s campaign war room. History doesn’t record that the overheard chit-chat did the Conservatives any good, but it made the leader feel better. Today, reporters seeking comment on any story are quizzed at length about their intentions. They may or may not get a call back with any information. But the information they surrender is collated and analyzed for trends on the issues that interest the media.

Formal requests for documents are ritually stonewalled. Last week the interim information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, said the right of citizens to information about how they are governed is “at risk of being totally obliterated” by delays. Legault has been interim information commissioner for 10 months while she waits to hear whether the same government she criticizes will accept her application for the full-time job. That arrangement would seem custom-designed to keep Legault in line indefinitely, but she has decided she will keep doing her job with brio for however long she might continue to hold it. Harper’s instinct—hoard information, dole it out in as miserly a way as possible, act on insider information rather than on what’s obvious to all the world—persists.

What is left over, after all of this, is the lives of a husband and wife who used to be of great value to Harper’s party. Rahim Jaffer was a key early guarantor of the Reform party’s claim to diversity, urban appeal, and—because he speaks French—a measure of interest in the French language and the peculiar currents of Quebec politics. He was the Canadian Alliance’s deputy House leader when that shattered party was trying to recover from Stockwell Day’s disastrous leadership. There’s just nobody in Ottawa who dislikes the guy, or there wasn’t six months ago. His wife was carefully stationed in the camera shot right behind Harper for years, the better to improve perceptions of the party among women voters. She was famous in Conservative circles for being a hard boss to work for, but her own boss, Stephen Harper, would not hear a word sent against her.

Now they have been cast aside. The evidence against them started out solid enough. He really did blow over the limit at that cop stop outside Toronto. She really did hurl footwear while P.E.I. airport workers were simply trying to do the job Canada’s federal cabinet obliges them to do. The excuses on offer have been flimsy. Guergis had two miscarriages, but to suggest that should be her defence insults any number of women who held on to their dignity in the face of comparable challenges.

Perhaps all that can be said about the couple’s decline, up to a point, is that the life they signed up for can be rough on anyone’s dignity. In his autobiography, Think Big, the former Reform party leader Preston Manning devotes considerable space to “the sad but oft-proven truth that if you are suffering from a financial problem, a marital problem, or a substance abuse problem, it will only get worse, not better, if you become a member of Parliament.” Very few are the denizens of the capital who would long survive serious scrutiny of their behaviour off duty. That’s not an excuse. Perhaps it is context.

But we cannot judge Jaffer and Guergis because we literally have no idea what the former minister and her husband stand accused of doing. The Prime Minister’s love of secrecy did not stop him from hinting darkly that there were nasty allegations against them. Then he clammed up, as if all that is now happening to them were none of his problem. This started out as a story about the things Rahim Jaffer and Helena Guergis should be ashamed of. It’s starting to look like they’re not the only ones.

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