Absolutely everything we know about the Harper government’s instincts and methods have been on display in the past two weeks. Taken together, they help to explain why, after 71/2 years in office, the government is reeling.
The failure to provide full accounting, the drip-drip assault on institutions and individuals that can check the government, the bulldozing of parliamentary scrutiny, the constant attempt to manipulate images, the obsessive spin – all have been on public display in a compressed time frame. There is nothing new about any of these tactics and strategies, but collectively, they represent a disrespect toward Canadian democratic values that may be slowly seeping into the public’s consciousness.
In the Senate scandal, it is clear that the Prime Minister’s Office, with its compulsive micromanaging tendencies, crafted, dictated and attempted to execute a strategy to minimize the damage done by the initial reports of inappropriate spending and, in recent days, to discredit and crush the three senators.
Only a trial would tell whether the details of the evidently self-serving stories Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau told are credible, but the general picture their stories tell jibes with the government’s entire modus operandi. On Tuesday, the government leader in the Senate moved to limit debate, so that a vote on their suspension will take place Friday, just in time for the Conservative Party’s convention in Calgary.
The notion that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the supreme micromanager, gave instructions for Mr. Duffy to repay expenses but knew nothing about what subsequently transpired could be the truth – but, if so, that would represent an exceptionally rare departure for a PM renowned by civil servants for reading the footnotes on cabinet briefing papers.
In the case of a Supreme Court nominee from Quebec, Justice Marc Nadon, the government chose someone a long way from the leading lights of Quebec law, someone it believed would be predictably deferential to the exercise of governmental power. His followed other nominations that bypassed (except in the case of Thomas Cromwell from Nova Scotia) other, stronger options to a court that the Conservatives have distrusted as too liberal and activist since their early iteration as Reformers.
In the House of Commons, the government has stuffed into one massive omnibus bill various measures that should properly be split into smaller pieces of legislation for debate and scrutiny.
Omnibus bills, which this government has used often, frustrate scrutiny by definition because they are so complicated, detailed and bulky. To make matters more offensive, the government is tacking on a clause enabling Justice Nadon to sit, even though his Supreme Court eligibility is being contested by the Quebec government.
Elsewhere, after a meeting with private-sector economists this week, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made public comments in front of a large poster touting Canada’s Economic Action Plan.
That plan originated in a nationwide publicity campaign supporting measures to combat the 2008-09 recession. Years later, the publicity campaign, paid for by public money, still goes on. Indeed, the amount of public spending that takes place to promote government policies is without precedent. Other governments have done it, but none so shamelessly and expensively.
In the Senate affair, the nasty twist for the government is that Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin, who appear intent on wreaking vengeance to protect what remains of their reputations, were originally placed in the Red Chamber to shill for the Conservatives.
Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin promoted the party when asked. They likely assumed in return that they would be protected and defended by the party that put them in the Senate for that purpose. They discovered otherwise after bad publicity about their expenses began to wound the government.
And the supreme irony of this entire sordid affair is that a government manically committed to message control – through spending public money, through party organization and through the tightest possible control of event planning by the Prime Minister and his office – has lost control of events.