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The Globe and Mail

A star like Jason Kenney should avoid the gutter

The Conservatives see their latest act of duplicity as no big deal. As we learned last week, they ran another undercover sting operation. A party operative secretly taped a political opponent and leaked it to Sun TV. When the news broke, Tories then used it to attack the Liberals in the Commons.

This is garden-variety stuff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's party. Other parties have done similar things (if not on a similar scale) and this provides the Conservatives with some cover. If rationalizing abuse of power this way – "We're not the only ones" – strikes others as intellectually infantile, it doesn't bother them.

What was particularly noteworthy this time was the involvement of Employment Minister Jason Kenney. He's the party's star. He's touted as the inside favourite to succeed Mr. Harper. He gets a lot of votes, including mine, for most effective cabinet minister. He has more mental equipment (one envious Tory calls him "Smarty Pants") than anyone on the Tory front benches.

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On the question of ethics, you might think he would want to nurture an upright and honourable image in contrast to many in his party. Unlike other Tories, he's got enough clout to tell the toadies in the Prime Minister's Office what they can do with their talking points.

So what did he do last week? He jumped into the gutter with both feet. He showed himself to be all-in with the bottom-feeders.

The entrapment target was Marlo Raynolds, a Liberal candidate running for a new seat in Alberta, Banff-Airdrie. It encompasses a portion of a riding where the Tories beat the Liberals in 2011 by a staggering 40,000 votes, so Mr. Raynolds is hardly a towering threat. But the Tories, Mr. Kenney included, went after him anyway, claiming to have caught him with their listening device making inappropriate comments about the government's income-splitting plan.

A problem arose when Mr. Raynolds denied it was he who made the remarks and someone else in the taped conversation owned up. Sun TV retracted its story. (Brian Mulroney, it should be noted, is a big cheese at Quebecor, which owns the network. Many think he might do something about its being viewed as a mouthpiece for Mr. Harper, for whom he has no surfeit of fondness.)

Mr. Kenney did not retract, however – he doubled down on the dirt. He showed not a pang of guilt over the party getting caught in the underhanded sting. Instead, he came out firing, saying, to Mr. Raynolds's astonishment, that an audio expert had examined the tape and declared the voice to be Mr. Raynolds.

It was a good indication of the thinking of Mr. Kenney, who has been caught up in previous ethical transgressions. Rather than get worked up over the identity of the voice, he could gave gained much respect had he said the obvious – that devious operations of this kind have no place in our politics.

Mr. Kenney was fortunate because, while this newspaper ran a stinging editorial on the sting, the controversy didn't generate much news coverage. Stories on the Harper gang's abuse of power are so common now that they often get relegated to the back pages. Logic might suggest that the more a government engages in this kind of politics, the bigger the story would be. But the opposite is often the case: Yawn, what else is new?

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As a consequence, anti-democratic behaviour gets institutionalized. The Tories notice that they aren't getting hit too hard and keep at it. The political culture sinks some more.

The Conservatives have run other stings on Liberals John McKay and Andrew Leslie. The PMO sent out party interns as agent provocateurs to disrupt a Justin Trudeau speech. Stories of telephone campaigns by Tories operating under false identities are legion.

From Mr. Kenney, it seems all fine and well. This is the guy who may be the future of the party. This is the guy who could change its ways. But, if last week is any indication, don't look for it to happen.

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