David McLaughlin was a former chief of staff and advisor in Conservative party politics federally and provincially.
The RCMP’s decision to lay 31 criminal charges against Conservative Senator Mike Duffy is an unwelcome intrusion into Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s election-year planning. As the clock runs down to the fixed election date of Oct. 19, 2015, the impending trial and testimony threatens to upend the Conservative government’s pre-campaign narrative.
Happy tales of strong economic leadership risk being trumped by more troublesome stories of corrupt political ethics.
In a tight contest an election can turn on anything. A stray comment from a leader or candidate (Kim Campbell’s 1993 musing about elections not being the time to discuss important issues), a misplaced policy idea (Tim Hudak’s 100,000 public service job cuts in Ontario) or simply, “events, dear boy, events,” as British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan put it in the day, meaning controversies out of one’s control.
The Duffy Senate trial falls into that last category of ‘events.’ Despite an intense effort to manage the file away from the Prime Minister and his office at the outset, bombshell evidence of his former chief of staff writing a $90,000 cheque to Mr. Duffy brought it right through the front door.
A year later, it’s back knocking on the doors of the Langevin Block.
This is where we are. But is that where we will be? Is it guaranteed to hurt Mr. Harper’s re-election gambit a year from now?
The answer: It depends. Specifically, it depends on ‘when’, ‘who’, and ‘what’
The justice system is a great leveller, but it levels slowly. Time may ultimately work in Mr. Harper’s benefit. Any unfavorable testimony may not make it into the public’s voting consciousness by October of next year. Calling an earlier election (still permitted under the fixed election date law) could avoid damning testimony but would expose the Prime Minister to charges he has something to hide.
Next, it depends on who speaks. Mr. Duffy’s credibility is diminished now that he has actually been charged. The courtroom process of cross-examination is a harsh filter for spin. But witnesses are another matter and, depending on who’s called to testify, such as his former chief of staff, can shape public opinion about the Prime Minister.
Finally, it depends not just on what’s said in the courtroom, but what’s asked. The court of public opinion matters little in a criminal case which necessarily circumscribes the conduct of the proceedings. A desire to figuratively put the Prime Minister and his office in the witness box simply may not occur the way the opposition and others want.
Still, no Prime Minister is without recourse to shape perceptions in a favorable way. Mr. Harper has three basic strategies he can implement.
First, he can strive to ensure the story becomes all about Mr. Duffy’s individual actions and not his own or the PMO’s. With 31 charges in play, Canadians could well be tempted to conclude there is a pattern of unsavory behaviour beyond anything the PMO might have enabled. While the Senator held public attention with his highly-charged statements on the scandal, it provided little personal redemption that he can call upon now. Challenging that notion is the $90,000 cheque and how that actually came about.
Second, he can seek to change the story from the Senate to more favorable political or policy issues like the economy or international leadership – or whatever suits the governing Conservatives better. Prime ministerial announcements command attention. That did not work last year with either the Cabinet shuffle or the Throne Speech. But strong gains for the opposition parties have not exactly materialized either. The Conservatives may be in second place in national polls but their support is stubbornly resilient.
Three, he can continue to undermine his political opponents through ramped-up negative political advertising, outflanking them on values issues, and forcing divisions between the Liberals and the NDP on key political files. Strong by-election performances by the Liberals suggest limits to this gambit.
The real danger may not be what transpires during the Mike Duffy trial but how the Prime Minister and his government comport themselves before, during, and after it. In politics, acting rattled means you are rattled. A nasty tone and language convey a lot to voters. Sticking with the tried and true may appear stale and stagnant.
So, it depends.
Meanwhile, an arresting thought occurs: for a Prime Minister whose remarkable penchant for command-and-control politics is unsurpassed, the most galling aspect of this episode may be that events are now conspiring to control him.