David McLaughlin has been chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord and federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
MEMO: TO THE PRIME MINISTER
FROM: A TRUSTED ADVISOR
SUBJECT: ADVICE TO MOVE OFF THE SCANDAL
Prime Minister, Our attempt to change the channel on the Senate scandal isn’t working. Neither the Throne Speech nor your surprise trip to Brussels to sign the Canada-European Union free trade agreement were sufficient to entice the media and opposition away from the far juicier story of our Senators behaving badly. This is a story the public understands and they are paying attention.
Worse, the decision to suspend ‘notorious three’ from the Senate upped the ante for you and the government while stepping on our own agenda and economic message. It brought Senator Duffy out of hiding and gave each now a podium to slash and burn in response. We’ve been in responsive mode ever since to our detriment. Now, our Government Leader in the Senate (no communicator he) not only failed to make an airtight parliamentary case for suspension but wound up free-lancing some form of ‘go easy’ deal with Senator Brazeau, reinforcing back room cover-up image of the whole affair.
In the House, the Leader of the Opposition is having a field day with his pseudo-prosecutorial persona during Question Period, while the Liberal Party leader looks good just by not being there. Never mind that Mulcair’s attacks are just driving votes to Trudeau, no quarter can be expected from across the aisle.
Frankly, we are starting off this week where we ended last week: behind and reactive. We need to change this and soon. Our governing agenda has no traction. We have a convention coming up and by-elections with two seats we must hold. Our core support has shrunk from earlier in the year and our political capital overall is less than what we had before. The party and caucus mood are apprehensive about where this might be going and frustrated with our management of the issue. Conservatives are ‘mad as hell’ at the Senators in question but are perplexed by the actions that got us to this point.
What started as a Senate scandal about three Conservative Senators double-dipping housing allowances and maybe more, changed overnight into a PMO scandal with the inexplicable $90.000 payment to Senator Duffy, and now threatens to become a Prime Minister scandal with you as the only target that matters. We cannot permit this.
Three dangers lurk. That new, damaging information emerges casting doubt on our storyline to date. That the RCMP ups the ante by laying charges elevating this to a criminal matter involving PMO or Conservative party personnel (which is never good). That the public, not knowing who or what to believe, tune our explanations out and simply decide to hold you responsible on the basis you appointed these Senators and run a hands-on government.
There is nothing we can do about the first two. But we can and must act fully against the latter.
Two strategic approaches are available. In short, stick to what we’ve been doing and saying (the old narrative) and ride it out until the issue is no longer newsworthy at some point or, create a new narrative that inoculates you from whatever occurs or is said next.
The first approach hews to the messaging to date – you knew nothing of the Senatorial payment by your previous chief of staff, wouldn’t have allowed it if you had known, and support sanctions against those responsible. This is our traditional issues management strategy and has mostly worked during our time in government. But it leaves us hostage to changing information and circumstances and does nothing to remediate the damage already done to us.
The second approach is riskier but ultimately places us more in control of the narrative and events. It has three parts aimed at the main issues in play: you, Senators, and the Senate itself.
The first part is a comprehensive public statement by you on the whole affair containing a broad declaration of responsibility as the head of government so you are seen as open, truthful, and contrite about what has happened but also determined to address. The second part is a ‘reform within’ initiative of a blue-ribbon panel of past Parliamentarians and private sector experts to examine and report within three months on radically transforming the Senate’s stodgy accountability rules to meet today’s high public expectations. The third part is a major Senate ‘reform without’ initiative consisting of a three-year moratorium on any Senate appointments followed by publication of a white paper on options on reform or abolition building on the Supreme Court reference now underway. Announce all together and turn the page.
Both approaches have risks, but they are different. One is in-character, but keeps us responsive within a narrow band of maneuverability. The other is out-of-character, but makes us proactive and seeks to take the issue away from you once and for all.