Remember the Throne Speech? That was eight days ago. The Canada-EU trade deal? Six.
“A week is a long time in politics,” quipped British prime minister Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s, and truer words were never spoken. Ask Stephen Harper: his Conservatives are now grasping for the end of this one.
“I was ordered by the Prime Minister to pay the money back – end of discussion,” former Conservative Senator Mike Duffy declared on Tuesday. “Nigel Wright was there throughout. Just the three of us.”
Senator Duffy’s words – and, to a lesser extent, Senator Patrick Brazeau’s and Senator Pamela Wallin’s – had every carbon-based life form in Ottawa spellbound on Tuesday and Wednesday, all of them hanging on each successive syllable. There are no television cameras in the Senate chamber, but at least one network went live with the sound of the Senators’ voice, a one-night-only radio play set in our anachronistic upper house. Duffy the Prime Minister Slayer. The Passion of the Mike. Game of Loans.
“If I didn’t resign from the Conservative caucus within 90 minutes,” Mr. Duffy told his colleagues on Tuesday, “I’d be thrown out of the caucus.” The opposition parties will make sure that we hear his version of events over and over again. As the scandal finally and fully engulfs the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Harper’s adversaries have abundant cause for mirth, but not without moderation. By attacking the Prime Minister, Mr. Duffy has made things paradoxically difficult for Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, both of whom may have trouble heeding Napoleon’s advice: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” For the opposition parties, too much Senatefreude can be a dangerous thing.
In the self-spinning vortex of Parliament Hill, it can be easy for opposition parties to convince themselves that uncommitted voters feel as strongly about Stephen Harper as they do. (I speak from experience.) Yet, it is probably safe to assume that most of the public has not been paying close attention to Duffygate’s daily developments, as opposition partisans have been. The silent majority of Canadians may hesitate to believe serious allegations made against the Prime Minister by a senator who, until Tuesday, had been Parliament’s primary punching bag.
Both opposition parties – and the media, for that matter – have spent months making mincemeat of Mr. Duffy’s credibility. Now, however, they need Canadians to take him at his word. Watch for the NDP and the Liberals to start revising their own vocabulary; rather than call him “Mike Duffy,” you will likely hear opposition MPs refer to their chief witness as “Senator Duffy,” instead. It sounds more dignified, you see.
They will also be tempted to overreach. Mr. Mulcair spent the summer trying to convince Canadians that the Senate is the root of all evil. The NDP would like the institution itself, rather than its individual members, to be the object of the public’s scorn. Their logic is flawed – when MPs misbehave, nobody suggests that we should abolish the House of Commons – but their position is about politics, not principle. If the Senate, full of Conservatives and Liberals, is to blame, then only the NDP can be blameless – and must therefore be the only party that can be trusted to “clean up Ottawa.” For an Official Opposition that has been polling in third place for the better part of a year, this strategy has obvious appeal.
Still, the NDP’s approach could backfire. Today, Mike Duffy is the story, and ex-aide Nigel Wright, and Stephen Harper. If Mr. Mulcair tries to widen the public’s focus, he could lose it, instead. Besides, good luck convincing Canadians to vote for you when your big campaign promise is to reopen the Constitution, and good luck convincing Quebeckers – who make up more than half of the NDP caucus – to vote for a plan that would reduce Quebec’s representation in Parliament. If the NDP makes the Senate the story, in other words, they may actually take the public’s attention away from Mike Duffy and the PMO, and focus too much of it on themselves. The devil may vanish into the details.
Yet, even if the NDP’s spin fails to catch on, it could still water down the impact of the scandal, particularly since it will clash pointedly with the Liberals’ talking points. Like Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Trudeau and his party may also be tempted to broaden the issue beyond Senator Duffy, but the Liberals will want to talk about accountability and transparency in expenses, rather than the existence of the Senate itself. Mr. Trudeau decreed earlier this year that Liberal MPs and Senators would henceforth proactively disclose their own spending. The Conservatives eventually made the same promise. The NDP has refused. Though Mr. Mulcair has pushed instead for a more complicated system of independent oversight, Liberal MPs may nonetheless be inclined to make hay while the sun shines everywhere but on NDP MPs’ petty cash.
The Duffy affair should be a feast for the opposition parties. By each trying to frame the scandal in a way that hurts not only the Conservatives but also each other, the Liberals and the NDP may yet squander what could be their best opportunity to damage the Tory brand since Mr. Harper took office nearly eight years ago. Both can win if the Tories lose – if Senator Duffy’s revelations persuade Conservative diehards to stay home at the next election – but if either opposition party reaches too far, they may both yet come up short. They could waste a chance to hurt the Conservatives if they try too hard to help themselves.
On Tuesday, Mike Duffy skewered the Prime Minister. Before the Liberals and the NDP try to do the same to each other, they should pause for some sober second thought.
Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and a contributor to CBC News: The National. He worked for the Liberals on Parliament Hill from 2008 to 2011.
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