Skip to main content

Senator Mike Duffy, who faces 31 criminal charges, gets out of his vehicle outside a pet kennel in Kensington, PEI, on Friday.Andrew Collins/Reuters

Every time Mike Duffy's name returns to the news, Stephen Harper's hold on power seems a little more brittle.

By now, you'd think this scandal's impact would have been exhausted. But people are still interested. It can still damage. And each time it pops back up, it underlines that Mr. Harper's formidable political defences are getting weaker.

This government likes to control the political narrative, fight back accusers and drown scandals, but as it looks ahead to the next phase of the Duffy scandal, the trial, it finds it doesn't have many viable tactics left to deflect blame. Part of that is this particular scandal. Part of it is eight years in power.

There is real danger for Conservatives. The Senate scandal, especially Mike Duffy's part in it, is more than an Ottawa-bubble affair. Each big twist has caused Tory support to dip.

For them, a trial is a lurid thought, with Conservatives, including senior aides and perhaps even the Prime Minister, testifying about efforts to keep the expense scandal quiet. Many Tories will be hoping for a plea bargain. Mr. Harper's team will be planning ways to deflect damage.

They could blame Mr. Duffy as a bad apple. They have. They will again. That was the tack taken by Mr. Harper's spokesman, Jason MacDonald, when Senator Duffy was charged on Thursday – calling the suspended senator's alleged actions "disgraceful." But that's now a relatively impotent political tactic.

For one thing, Senator Duffy was appointed by Mr. Harper, and he's not alone. There are other (now former) Conservatives, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, accused of expense abuses.

What's more, the RCMP investigation has already provided ample evidence the instinct of Conservatives, and the PMO, was to protect Senator Duffy, and keep the scandal as quiet as possible. Some of those machinations would be aired in any trial.

The bribery charge that Senator Duffy faces is, after all, for accepting a $90,000 cheque from Mr. Harper's then-chief-of-staff, Nigel Wright, to cover his expenses. Even if Mr. Wright doesn't face any charges for his part in that transaction, the RCMP's investigation made clear the secret payment changed hands as Mr. Harper's team desperately sought a way to close down the story.

The Conservatives can also try to encourage bi-partisan blame. A former Liberal senator, Mac Harb, was among those accused of expense abuses. Auditor-General Michael Ferguson will issue a report on senators' expenses. Mr. Harper's team can try to paint expense abuses as a widespread problem – a general failing in the Senate, not the Conservative Party. Many people believe it already.

But Mr. Harper is vulnerable there, too. Dismissing expense abuses as part of a decadent upper house is harder now that there is no plan to change it, other than refusing to name new senators for a while. He blames his inability to reform the Senate on the courts, but if that pacifies reformers in his political base, it doesn't offer a fix.

Years in power work against Mr. Harper. He appointed a majority of senators, the old-fashioned way. Mike Duffy was to be a celebrity fundraiser. Mr. Brazeau, former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, had sided with the Conservatives as he critiqued bigger native groups. Mr. Harper appointed a campaign manager, party president and press secretary.

That past can be brushed off as no different from other PMs. New prime ministers can use that to deflect hypocritical accusations from other parties, but over time it starts to work against veteran incumbents who promised change.

Damage control gets judged against the past. Jean Chrétien responded to the sponsorship scandal by curbing political donations, but after years of cashing big cheques.

Mr. Harper still has a strong tactic left: to focus attention elsewhere. He's the PM. He can time initiatives, finalize trade deals, announce tax cuts to compete with scandal headlines. Govern, full speed ahead, and attack his opponents' plans, too.

Eight years in power weakens defences, but it strengthens the advantage of incumbency. He's got prime ministerial gravitas, has convinced many he has ability, and can use levers of power to tell Canadians he's doing things for them. He'll need to use those tools, running at full bore, to keep his grip on power.