Opinion

What, Harper Save Face? Not with That Base

No way he'll step down over the Duffy affair. Among his ilk, honour is for chumps.

By Crawford Kilian 25 Nov 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Since RCMP corporal Greg Horton released his 81-page Information To Obtain a Production Order (ITO) last week, Stephen Harper has presided over anything but a strong, stable Conservative majority. But maybe he doesn't need one.

Cpl. Horton has revealed a seamy world of back room dealing. Harper's own man, Nigel Wright, was smart enough to predict that "this will end badly."

The same ITO showed Senator Mike Duffy, who recently portrayed himself as victimized nice guy, to be just another economizer with the truth. Still other Harper-appointed senators -- including Marjory LeBreton, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen and Irving Gerstein -- appeared to have been equally economical.

In the House, NDP leader Tom Mulcair has ruthlessly pursued his grilling of the PM (or the PM's designated punching bag, Paul Calandra), and the poker-faced Harper began to look frazzled. So did the Tories seated behind him: Michelle Rempel, in particular, is not the talking-point cheerleader she used to be. Now she sulks, barely able to applaud her boss's increasingly repetitive denials.

The purpose of Cpl. Horton's ITO was to obtain still more information about what was going on in the PMO and Senate. One of the biggest questions still unanswered is why Harper and Wright paid any attention at all to Mike Duffy's financial and ethical troubles. Harper certainly didn't worry about Helena Guergis's financial problems when he sacked her from both cabinet and the caucus. If Bev Oda's departure caused her any grief, the PMO evidently found the strength to bear her misfortune.

Duffy, faced with a bill he couldn't pay, didn't say, "Well, we'll remortgage the house and take a bullet for the team, and sorry for the inconvenience I've caused." Instead, he fought.

From hero to zero

First he appears to have won a promise that the Conservative Party would repay some $32,000. Then he told Wright the amount owing was $90,000, at which point party paymaster Senator Gerstein evidently withdrew from the game, except for $13,000 in legal fees. Wright said he was "beyond furious" about Duffy.

But so what? Duffy had gone from fundraising hero to political zero. Why not cut him loose and cut the Tory losses?

Any thriller writer knows that the higher the stakes, the more dramatic the action. In this case, the stakes appear to be something Duffy knows that is worth $90,000 (and a lot of political grief) to suppress. Cpl. Horton may yet uncover what it is. Or Duffy himself may finally reveal it, with documentation.

When Canada still operated under "responsible government," ministers were literally responsible: they would answer not only for their own misdeeds but for those of their officials, by resigning until the matter was thrashed out in the courts. Their departure was praised by their fellow-parliamentarians as "the honourable thing."

The last Canadian politicians I can recall who did the honourable thing were Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark. Harcourt resigned the B.C. premiership in 1996 not for his own failures but for those of Dave Stupich. Clark quit in 1999 on an allegation of breach of trust. Since then, responsibility applies only to the officials, who are now just so much ballast to be cut loose to keep their masters' balloons aloft.

Honour is for chumps

By contrast, Clark's Liberal successor Gordon Campbell, busted for drunk driving in Hawaii in 2003, returned to face the cameras with his decidedly unhappy wife -- but only to apologize and carry on. He taught his generation of politicians that honourable resignation is for chumps.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is now conducting a master class in political survival, entertaining the world with his exploration of alcohol and crack cocaine while also trapping the media into repeating obscenities normally not heard outside boys' high school locker rooms.

Ford may have lost his grip on the levers of power, but not on the hearts of his voters. At the end of last week, Forum Research announced the mayor's support remained strong at 42 per cent. One in three of those polled said they would vote for him again if he runs, and one in five would back him as prime minister.

Campbell and Ford offer powerful advice to Stephen Harper: no matter how bad it gets, your base will always love you. The Conservatives are already primed for this advice. For years they have shrugged off trivia like being found in contempt of Parliament by appeal to public apathy: "Canadians don't care."

Canadians -- Conservative Canadians -- don't care about the botching of the F-35, the screwing of our Afghan veterans, the disappearance of $3.1 billion in anti-terrorism funds, or Tony Clement's gazebo. They don't care about the destruction of wild salmon, or about worldwide scorn for our environmental sins. So why should they care if Stephen Harper was willing to lie both to them and to Parliament about Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, or anyone else?

Some of Harper's cabinet already seem restless: Jason Kenney has come to the defence of Nigel Wright, a shocking departure from the PMO talking points. One or two backbenchers like Brent Rathgeber have already broken ranks.

A perp walk at 24 Sussex?

But short of being arrested and doing a perp walk in handcuffs out to a waiting RCMP van at 24 Sussex Drive, what does Stephen Harper really have to fear?

However unhappy his caucus may be with him, they have nowhere else to go. Desert him, and the base will punish them. Find him a graceful exit (perhaps replacing Gordon Campbell as High Commissioner in London), and who could succeed him? Joe Oliver might keep the oil and mining donations coming, but he charms no one else. Jim Flaherty clearly wants to go home. Peter MacKay? Pierre Poilievre?

To ask such questions is to answer them. Without Harper, his caucus would return to obscurity (or at best a few corporate directorships). He may have wanted to build the Conservatives into the natural governing party of the century, but he has groomed no successors. And a good thing, too: judging from his cabinet, Senate, and PMO appointments, he utterly lacks judgment of other people.

So, evidently, do his backers and his base. If they were really in for the long haul, they would have seen Harper for what he is, and especially for what he isn't. And they would have demanded someone better.

So Harper can hope to crash through his critics as Ford has, while the world's media rejoice in yet another Canadian political buffoon.

Ironically, RCMP meddling in politics got the Conservatives into power, when former commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli announced during the 2005-06 election that the Mounties would launch a criminal investigation into the leak of income-trust information from the Liberal government.

Now Cpl. Horton is conducting a much more legitimate inquiry into bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The documentation he seeks into Duffy's banking and the emails of Duffy, David Tkachuk, Marjory LeBreton and Carolyn Stewart-Olsen may give him the evidence he needs to lay charges. Or it may not. Duffy or Wright may produce damning evidence of their own. Or they may not. Maybe it really will blow over.

So until the Mounties actually turn up at 24 Sussex Drive, Harper's best strategy may be to stick it out, secure in the knowledge that whatever he may have done, Conservative Canadians don't care -- and the other Canadians don't count.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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