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Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday May 28, 2013. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday May 28, 2013. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Why the Senate expenses scandal is hurting Harper more than he knows Add to ...

Yesterday I had the opportunity to take part in an unofficial focus group. I say unofficial as it wasn’t organized by any of the research or polling companies. Instead, it consisted of a wide mixture of individuals, all of whom like me were held captive in an automobile dealer’s room waiting for our vehicles to be repaired.

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It was your typical Tim Horton’s crowd. It consisted of some seniors, a few others with young families, some soccer moms, some blue collar types and a few business people. In other words a group that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have counted on for their support when seeking a majority government.

Most of us were in that room from four to six hours. The dealer had provided a television to help us pass the time, but it was pretty well ignored as over time people became buried in books or magazines, one napped and most just stared blankly into space. No one spoke to each other, we were all thinking about our own issues. Most of you have been in such a waiting room at one time or another, so you know what I mean and you can appreciate the environment I am describing.

The television was tuned to one of our national news networks. It received rarely a glance from anyone until the station picked up Question Period. Suddenly the room was transformed. People sat up to pay attention to the exchanges between Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair. Even mechanics and other staff walking through the room stopped to follow the exchanges. Our focus group session had begun.

For a Conservative it was not a pretty sight. People were visibly annoyed and followed every exchange. Heads were shaking as the Prime Minister answered Mr. Mulcair. Clearly people didn’t believe his answers and they didn’t like what they were hearing. His pushbacks on what Mr. Mulcair might have known years ago didn’t go over well at all, even invoking some muttering from a few in the type of language that can’t be printed here. As Question Period wore on, it was Mr. Trudeau’s turn but he didn’t have the same impact as Mr. Mulcair. Nevertheless our group remained focused on the exchanges through several rounds of questions until they switched to other topics and interest rapidly waned.

I have not seen the general public show that type of interest in a political issue since the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery inquiry. Clearly this Senate scandal has captured the interest of a wide spectrum of the Canadian public. They are following it and they don’t believe the Prime Minister.

If our little unofficial focus group accurately reflects the broader Canadian public, then the Conservatives are in deep on this one. Those of us who have worked with Stephen Harper know how outraged he becomes over issues involving the misuse of government (i.e., taxpayer dollars), but that is not coming through on this issue. There is little emotion in Mr. Harper’s voice when he answers Mr. Mulcair and when it does show it is usually in a pushback about Mr. Mulcair’s past. That tactic may rev up the Conservative back benchers in Question Period, but it is not working with the general public and it is probably doing Mr. Harper more harm than good.

It is time for the Prime Minister and the Conservatives to change how he answers and they have to change his messaging. It is time to let some of his real emotion come through so that voters understand just how upsetting these issues are to him. Time to stop the truculent pushback on Mr. Mulcair, it is not playing well.

As the issue drags on, the public’s anger is shifting from the senators to the Prime Minister; he has to seize back the high ground before it is too late. Inviting the Auditor-General to take a look at Senate expenses is one small step, but it is not enough. Why not do as Alberta has done and post all expenses for both the Senate and the House of Commons online? Perhaps Mr. Harper should put that question to the opposition parties and see how they respond.

At the end of the day, my repairs were covered by the warranty and cost me nothing. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister can’t say the same thing about his issue.

Keith Beardsley is a strategist at True North Public Affairs. He is a former senior staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office under Stephen Harper.

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