How Mike Duffy is like Vic Toews

Lessons from the Duffy-Wallin-Brazeau sideshow

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Listening to Mike Duffy casually implicate Stephen Harper in the biggest scandal of the Prime Minister’s political career, my thoughts turned to Vic Toews.

Weird, right? What could the recently retired former justice minister possibly have to do with the current Gong Show-like spectacle that threatens to engulf the Prime Minister’s Office, at the very least?

Call it a mental twitch. Every time someone Conservative gets into trouble because of the mean-spirited shortsightedness of the party’s communications strategy—and Harper’s current predicament is very much a product of that—I think of the phrase Toews uttered on Feb. 13, 2012. On that day, the very day Mike Duffy says the Prime Minister gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse, a Liberal MP rose in Parliament and dared throw a bit of shade at Toews’s Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. Toews response: “He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

Suggesting a fellow MP sympathizes with the plight of child pornographers probably isn’t the worst thing a Conservative has hurled at the opposition. Why, there’s Rob Anders, just the other day suggesting the NDP wants to “inject [heroin] into the veins of Canada’s children.”

Yet as a cabinet minister (and not just some lowly backbencher) Toews’s bon mots epitomize how the Conservatives have operated over the years: mean, pithy, and with a highly selective appreciation of reality. Time and again, it’s the same formula: attack, batten the hatches till the next news cycle, repeat. As the Conservatives’ many years in power prove, demonizing one’s enemies to the point of caricature works like hell.

The Duffy-Wallin-Brazeau sideshow is an example of what happens when you use this caustic strategy against your own. Out of habit or hubris (or both), the Conservatives supported Duffy and Wallin up to the very moment where they became a liability—at which point they became, well, worse than your average NDP pinko.

Let’s assume that Duffy’s testimony was the product of a desperate man’s willingness to stretch the truth—that, in fact, Harper knew nothing of the arrangement between his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and Duffy. Even if this were the case, the length of time Duffy’s extravagances were tolerated is matched only by the speed at which he was tossed aside once they became an embarrassment.

Duffy was one of the Senate’s biggest spenders in the Senate, racking up close to $160,000 in expenses between June 2011 and May 2012. Yet he was allowed to continue because he was shilling for the Conservative brand. It was money well spent, after all, since his name alone was fundraising gold. He along with 17 other Tory senators even attended Senate “boot camp” to learn how best to navigate the chamber’s expense rules.

Last February, Harper deemed Wallin’s expenses “comparable to any parliamentarian” forced to schlep from Saskatchewan to Ottawa. Eight months later, the Conservatives want to expel her, along with Duffy and Brazeau. The insinuation is clear: these three formerly shining Conservative stars are guilty, guilty, guilty.

The results were before us this week. One after another, Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin righteously teed off on the Conservative party. It’s an astonishing feat, in a way. The Conservatives have managed to make enemies of their own appointees to the Senate, that plushy redoubt of backslapping patronage seemingly designed to reward blind loyalty. And though the overindulgences of Senate members are hardly partisan, the PMO’s petty and ham-fisted attempts at staying clean have branded this a Conservative scandal.

And Vic Toews? According to his logic, the child pornographers won. The Conservatives shelved his bill a few months after his outburst, while Toews himself resigned in July before he could be made victim of a cabinet shuffle. If he’s a cautionary tale, certainly no one on his side was paying attention.

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