In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last few months, the National Post’s Matt Gurney has a useful summary of Mike Duffy’s corrupt antics in the Senate, up to and including the decision by the Prime Minister’s Office to bail out Duffy with $90,000 in cash from Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, which Duffy then used to pay back his $90,000 in ill-gotten gains bilked from the taxpayer via fraudulent expense claims. At the time, the PMO praised Duffy for “voluntarily” paying back the money. It now turns out there was nothing less than a conspiracy to rescue Duffy from having to make good on the expense accounts, and then to cover up the truth.
It’s illegal for Duffy to accept these sorts of payments in connection with his job as a Senator, so Gurney’s colleague, Andrew Coyne, is probably a little off base when he suggests that the matter wouldn’t have been nearly so awful if Duffy had disclosed the payment when it was made. In any event, I do thoroughly endorse the calls from both Coyne and Gurney (and many, many others) for Duffy to resign.
But there’s a broader observation to be made here, and I’m going to draw on another recent and scandalous episode in order to make it: where the hell has Stephen Harper’s admittedly self-interested sense of ethics gone?
Some of you will be scoffing that he never had one. This isn’t entirely true. Back when Harper was Leader of the Opposition, he believed sincerely in accountable and transparent government — or, more to the point, he believed that talking points about Liberal corruption, of which there was plenty to go around, played well with voters. And after getting elected, too, he passed some serious reforms to the ethics, lobbying, electoral finance, and other laws, even if those reforms have since been criticized for being full of loopholes so big you could drive a truck through them. And ministers could get dismissed for gross indiscretion from time to time, although those times have gotten noticeably fewer and some of the offenders (I’m looking at you, Max Bernier) have been pardoned and welcomed back into the fold.
Contrast that Harper with the Harper of this year. The Harper of this year isn’t exactly open about the corruption of his government, but he makes only slight attempts to hide it, and when caught out, he’s thoroughly unapologetic. When Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue was caught with his hand in a rather large cookie jar, the PMO defended him. When it turned out that they couldn’t simply brazen away massive violations of the electoral finance laws, Penashue stepped down, but only to run in the resulting by-election with a public promise from other Cabinet ministers that he would be reinstated into Cabinet following his re-election, plus some rather appalling guff of his own about he had deliberately (ab)used his Cabinet position by sabotaging government projects elsewhere in the country in order to gather pork for his own riding.
And now Mike Duffy. Duffy, as has been known for some months now, collected $90,000 in expenses for living in his house in Ottawa — a house he already owned and lived in when he was made a Senator, and hasn’t left since — on the dubious pretext that his vacation cabin on PEI was actually his “primary residence.” This declaration was made despite the fact that Duffy pays income taxes to Ontario, has an Ontario health care, and is registered to vote in Ontario; he subsequently claimed that he had made an error when filling out the form. A couple of months ago, while an audit of Duffy’s books was underway, he suddenly announced that he was going to repay the $90,000 in a spirit of generosity. At the time, we put it up to the Conservatives trying to put away the story before it got out of control.
Which was right, in a sense, but also wrong, in a sense. We now know, courtesy of some convenient press leaks, that Duffy worked out a deal with the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the terms of this deal, he “stayed silent” during the investigation — silent about what, we still don’t know — and, in exchange, he received a $90,000 “gift” from Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright, which he used to repay his fraudulent expense claims. So Duffy didn’t actually lose a cent by way of punishment. The Conservatives are adamant that Wright used his own money, not taxpayers’ or the party’s, for this incredibly seedy transaction.
Now, first of all, this seems like a useful time to point out that it’s simply untrue to say that “all politicians are the same.” Chretien’s Liberals, corrupt as they certainly were, were never charged with national electoral money laundering. When ministers were implicated in bilking the public, they were shipped off to Europe as ambassadors — which is bad enough, in its own way, but not nearly as bad as endorsing them as by-election candidates (a la Penashue) or promoting them to the Treasury Board (a la Tony Clement, whose proven exploits already dwarf the Sponsorship Scandal in its size). It’s hard to imagine Chretien not only declining to oust from his party a Senator found guilty of defrauding the taxpayer, but bailing him out of trouble with $90,000. Mulroney might have done it, but only if the cash had been stuffed into a brown envelope and exchanged in a New York hotel room.
As I wrote already, some readers will no doubt be already scrolling down to the comment section to interject that Harper was corrupt all along. I don’t contest this. There was, for instance, Harper’s attempt to bribe terminally-ill independent MP Chuck Cadman with a $1 million life insurance policy in exchange for a vote against the Liberal budget. The difference is, Harper used to angrily deny such allegations, and engage in ludicrously heavyhanded censorship tactics to suppress them — in the Cadman case, he sued the Liberals for libel and demanded $3.5 million in compensation, although the suit was later quietly dropped, presumably because the allegations were true.
The detectable (but gradual) difference is that after making some cursory efforts at denial, the Harper Conservatives no longer make serious attempts to defend their claims to integrity or accountability. During the Penashue by-election, it was openly claimed — unsuccessfully — by the Conservative Party that it would reward Labrador for supporting Penashue by putting him back in Cabinet and directing a steady stream of government investments into the riding. It was also indicated that if they declined to support Penashue, they would be punished: federal funding for the riding would dry up overnight. Given that Penashue had openly admitted to massive violations of the electoral laws in 2011, it’s amazing that he would have been allowed to run under the Conservative banner again in the first place.
The Duffy scandal didn’t have to be a scandal. The Liberals turfed their own cheating Senator, Mac Harb, long ago, even though he was guilty of much less than Duffy. Yet to date, Harper and the Prime Minister’s Office have not repudiated Duffy. Instead, they bought him out, and now, they have the temerity to claim — in obvious disregard of the ethics code — that the huge payment made to Duffy, much more than most of us make in a year, is actually a sign of how generous and friendly the Harper government is. It’s stunning, callous, and pathetic.
But it’s calculated. We have to assume it’s calculated. Despite their frequent missteps, the Harper government lives by tactics, not grand strategic vision. That is why they micromanage. That is why it’s hard to imagine Harper wouldn’t know about the payment to Duffy and even have approved it (without any semblance of a paper trail, of course). And that is why it’s worth asking what was going through their heads at the time that they judged the political risks of secretly funneling money to a corrupt senator were less than the political risks of simply firing Duffy at the outset and washing their hands of the whole thing, the way they did when another Harper appointee to the Senate, Patrick Brazeau, was recently charged with sexual assault.
On its face, this sort of calculation seems absurd. Harper himself would have had a field day with the issue if the Liberals had done anything remotely like it during their dying days. The conclusion must surely be that they believe the political fallout from being thoroughly implicated in corruption is actually negligible.
Once again, that may seem absurd on its face, but I’m not so sure. 40% of Canadians won’t vote anyways, so it doesn’t really matter what they think, although probably it’s something on the order of “don’t know, don’t care.” Of those who do vote, it’s now quite apparent, after six years of Harper rule, that at least 60% will never vote for the Conservatives anyways. The PMO can afford to write off these voters, because experience has amply demonstrated that you can win a majority government without them. Lots of these people are no doubt very angry about the Duffy scandal, but they weren’t going to vote for the Conservatives anyways, and Harper knows this.
Of the remaining group, the majority — let’s say at least 30% — will vote for the Conservatives anyways, because they consider themselves right-wing to the core, even though there’s no indication that the Harper Conservatives have more than a passive interest in any plausibly “conservative” political agenda. This is actually a surprisingly small percentage of our population that consider themselves too staunchly conservative to vote for any party that doesn’t label itself as conservative — adjusting for the mass of non-voters, less than one in five is a staunch conservative loyalist.
Despite current polling levels, I am quite confident that this represents basically a lower bound and I will stand by my judgement. Even in 1993, when the Progressive Conservatives imploded in spectacular fashion, they still captured 16% of the popular vote, and the Reform Party took another 19%. Plus, voter turnout was higher. Adjusting for that, about 25% of Canadians voted for an openly right-wing party in 1993, which is actually higher than the percentage that voted for the Conservatives in 2011. Of course thinking readers will want to also adjust for the fact that the PCs were not as right-wing in 1993 as they are now, and that by 1993 the Liberals were already a right-wing party in their basic policy outlook if not in their rhetoric.
So that leaves a total of about one in twenty Canadians who will vote for somebody and might vote Conservative but could plausibly be talked out of it. Of this already very small group, only a minority will (a) watch the news regularly, (b) read subtly enough to realize that this sort of graft would probably not be committed by other political parties, (c) put a high enough priority on government accountability that a scandal like Mike Duffy’s, or Tony Clement’s, or Peter Penashue’s, would cause them to change their vote, and (d) will receive such a strong impression from scandals like these that it will still influence their voting intentions two years down the road.
Now, it could be that the cumulative weight of successive scandals will end up costing the Conservatives dearly, the way it did for the Liberals, and the way it did for the PCs. I am not convinced of this, however. Mulroney’s extravagances were so extreme that it sparked the rise of a new right-wing party, whereas today, the vast majority of Conservatives show no interest in leaving Harper, at least on the mere grounds of routine lawbreaking, fiscal incompetence, or heavy-handed secrecy and censorship. The Liberals were buried by a full-court press by the conservative media, whereas today the media can generally be counted on to act as cheerleaders for right-of-centre parties, regardless of their indiscretions. The Globe & Mail is may be already working on the first drafts of their 2015 endorsement of Stephen Harper. At the time, people of all political parties and at all newspapers agreed that the government was subject to the rule of law. Sadly, that no longer appears to be the case.