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June 3, 2013

Harper Tories evoking laughter and anger

Geoffrey Stevens

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“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” — Retired House of Commons law clerk Rob Walsh, on the Mike Duffy/Nigel Wright Senate expenses uproar, CBC-TV, May 17.

Politicians don’t like it when people get really mad at them. Anger creates political damage. But they like it far less when people start laughing at them. Humour can destroy politicians and their careers. Witness former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, an honourable man who never recovered after Stephen Harper (with significant help from Mike Duffy, then a broadcaster) got the country laughing at him in the 2008 election.

Today, it seems to me, the Harper government is in peril of being dragged across that line between anger and laughter. The anger is real and it is not confined to the Ottawa bubble. It is everywhere. Just read the letters to the editor, listen to the hotline shows, follow the blogs and other traffic on the internet, or simply ask folks at Tims.

People are angry, and rightly so. A Conservative party that was elected to clean up the mess in Ottawa after the Liberal sponsorship scandal has made matters worse. A party that was supposed to be good managers, if nothing else, has managed to combine bureaucratic ineptitude, partisan insensitivity, bullying tactics and what York University political scientist Ian Greene calls the “arrogance of office” to turn Ottawa into a toxic waste dump, politically speaking.

Harper’s approach to problems is not to meet them head on and to fix them promptly, which is what astute prime ministers do. Rather he denies the problems exist, attacks the opposition or the media, runs ads, or prorogues Parliament, then deflects blame from himself by throwing someone else under the bus. In Harper’s Ottawa, the prime minister takes credit for everything good, but responsibility for nothing bad. To my recollection, the words, “It was my fault,” or “I was wrong,” have never passed his lips.

Now that Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, plus the Prime Minister’s Office chief of staff Nigel Wright, have joined discarded former ministers Bev Oda, Helena Guergis, Peter Penashue and John Duncan, it must be getting crowded under the Harper bus.

There is a certain dark humour in this. A prime minister who was elected on a promise to reform the Senate turns it into a cesspool of Conservative patronage. Every single senator he has appointed in seven years has been a Tory; each one has been required to swear fealty to the Harper program.

Although there are hordes of Conservatives out there who would jump at the chance to earn $132,000 a year, Harper found ones who either don’t know where they live or don’t understand the simple words, “principal residence.” They run up expenses like an out-of-control bullion train, ostensibly not grasping the fact that if they go forth to campaign for the Conservative party, they should not be claiming to be on Senate business. That’s called double-dipping and it is frowned on by the conflict-of-interest people, the Senate ethics committee and probably by Canada Revenue.

Mike Duffy got caught claiming a senatorial housing allowance to which he was not entitled and was ordered to repay $90,000. Did he pay it? Nope. Pleading poverty, he went to Nigel Wright in the Prime Minister’s Office, who wrote him a personal cheque for the $90,000.

By all accounts, Wright is a good (rich) man. He wanted to help poor “Duff.” He may also have wanted to make the Duffy problem go away before it did more damage to the Harper brand. But being wiser in the ways of business than of politics, he may not have understood the ethical implications when a senior figure in the Prime Minister’s Office makes a large gift to a parliamentarian whose support the prime minister counts on.

Back in 1982, Allan Fotheringham wrote a satirical book about the Trudeau Liberals entitled, Malice in Blunderland. I wish he hadn’t written it. We could use the title today for the Harper Tories.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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