On the face it, things couldn't have gone better for the Liberal Party. The Conservatives entered the election campaign on a wave of bad news: top party officials charged with willfully exceeding spending limits, contempt of Parliament rulings by the House Speaker, the Bev Oda odours, the Bruce Carson affair.
Then, Stephen Harper put in an opening campaign week that even his customary supporters rated as dismal. He got tied up in hypocritical knots over his coalition allegations. He backed away from facing Michael Ignatieff in a one-on-one debate. He played to his control-freak image by cordoning off reporters. He said he didn't want an election but then, in yet another contradiction, turned around and awarded Quebec its HST compensation, a prize that could have avoided this trip to the polls. By contrast, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff turned in what was, by broad consensus, an impressive performance in his first campaign tests.
Despite it all, the Conservatives either rose or held steady in the polls. Nothing, it appears, can stop their run to a big victory. In this campaign, they face only a couple of more big hurdles. One is the televised debates, in which Mr. Harper need only maintain his cool. The other is the scheduled release of potentially explosive documents related to the Afghan detainees affair.
The issue, we recall, turns on whether Canadian officials knowingly handed over prisoners for torture by Afghan authorities, a potential violation of the Geneva Conventions. Mr. Harper's government steadfastly refused to provide documents on the matter, but were ordered to do so a year ago by Speaker Peter Milliken. A special committee was then appointed to make sure any released materials wouldn't compromise national security.
Bryon Wilfert, a Liberal member of the committee, said Monday that a swath of documents are to be made public by mid-campaign. But he suspects Team Harper might pull a fast one, such as a court appeal to delay a process that has already been long delayed.
In fact, the Conservatives have just done this very thing in a bid to thwart another avenue of disclosure. The Military Police Complaints Commission has been preparing a report on the detainees controversy. But last week, as reported by The Canadian Press, the government quietly went to the Federal Court to try and impose limits on what the military watchdog can say.
The Conservatives have a habit of running from accountability by running to the courts. On this file, they surely want to do a lot of sprinting. The detainees story offers an extraordinary portrait of the governing morality.
It led to former defence minister Gordon O'Connor's demotion after he had to apologize for misleading the House. It led to Mr. Harper and ministers, as well as Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk, having to issue embarrassing corrections of previous claims. It led to the Prime Minister's dumping of Peter Tinsley, the head of the Military Police Complaints Commission, who was hot on the trail of the file. And it led to other outrages, such as the government denial of documents to the commission on the basis of national security – even though commission members had national security clearance.
There was more. The detainees imbroglio saw the government attempt to discredit a respected diplomat, Richard Colvin, for having the courage to come forward and challenge its story. It prompted Mr. Harper to try and deny Parliament its historic right of access to documents. It was a catalyst in the Prime Minister's decision to prorogue Parliament 15 months ago, which touched off a national protest. It led to the Speaker's historic ruling condemning Mr. Harper's government.
For a record of Conservative woe, it's hard to find anything that can compare. The last thing Mr. Harper's operatives need – even if the documents contain no startling new revelations – is for all the evidence of obstructionism, secrecy and dereliction to come flooding back.
They have done everything possible in the past to deep-six this file. They will do anything now.