Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Harper's Eyes Wide Shut Moment

As the Senate Expenses Scandal unfolds, Canadians are seeing the consequences of the culture that Harper has fostered in the CPC in his drive to gain power.  

When Harper set his sights on power, specifically on making the CPC "Canada's Natural Governing Party" for the coming decades, he decided on some key fundamentals to guide the operation of the party:  The first was an unyielding control over every action and word to come out of the party's political apparatus.  The second was to do everything possible to undermine parliament in such a way as to hamstring any other party from undoing Harper's legislation.

Harper came to power in 2006 with promises of more "open and accountable" government.  Greater transparency came in the form of a government which suddenly became slow to respond to information requests, and those it did fulfil were heavily redacted.  Accountability, well, Harper did create the Parliamentary Budget Officer.  The first occupant of that position, Kevin Page, turned out to be a problem for Harper, as he questioned just about everything that the Harperites did, and did so publicly.

In 2007, Harper discarded earlier promises of attempting to reform the Senate based on long asked for (in Western Canada, at least) principles of a "EEE" Senate.  He started appointing people to fill the Senate vacancies, and since then has used the Senate for more patronage and partisan appointments than any prime minister before him.  

In 2008, Harper chose to appoint Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau to the Senate.  Each one was appointed because of what Harper believed they could do for him.  Whether that was bringing in votes, or money, doesn't really matter.  They were brought into the Senate so that they could work full time on partisan activities without the CPC having to pay their salaries.  

Harper erred significantly in his handling of both Duffy and Wallin though.  Most new senators are not used to being in the public eye, and are appropriately cautious about their conduct.  Duffy and Wallin are both former journalists.  Not only are they used to being in the public eye, they are also accustomed to spending to support their position.  I'm sure that neither of them thought twice about the expenses they would be claiming.  They would be accustomed to privileged treatment when travelling for business in their prior lives.  It wouldn't occur to them that there was a lot of subterfuge involved in their appointments in the first place.  Duffy was no more a resident of PEI than I am, and Ms. Wallin had long ago put down roots in Toronto.  Her origins in small town Saskatchewan are very much a part of the past, not the present.

So, when this whole mess blew up last winter, Harper was no doubt feeling more than a little flat-footed about the whole thing.  Collusion and calumny come naturally to Harper.  He knows that he has to hide a certain amount of his activities from the public.  What he underestimated was that he failed to govern the actions of those who act on his behalf.

Harper's failure here is one not of political judgment, but rather one of his own character flaws.  He is so accustomed to lying, subterfuge and deceit as part and parcel of the power game.  Using other people as tools is as natural to him as using a screwdriver is to a mechanic.  Harper's blind spot has always been that he doesn't understand that others do not see the world as he does.  

While Duffy and Wallin can hardly be shown as "innocents" in this.  They both knew full well that there was a degree of subterfuge and dishonesty at play when they were appointed.  Harper knew it, and I'm sure that they did too.  Both of them had to be aware that they were being appointed not for their political acumen but for what Harper perceived they could do for him.  They were told, and no doubt believed, that the expenses they were claiming were perfectly legitimate.  With only limited experience dealing with public opinion, they wouldn't have had a clue what the public reaction would be to these expenses being disclosed.

At the end of the day, though, for all of Harper's prevarications lately, the responsibility for this mess lies on his desk.  He made these appointments, gave these Senators their marching orders, and his PMO staff gave them the guidance regarding their activities and expenses.  While Harper may try to claim "plausible deniability" in terms of his knowledge of events and specifics, that does not absolve him of responsibility.

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