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bruce anderson

Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated over and over that if anyone doubted whether Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau should be suspended without pay, they had only to imagine what would happen in a private company.

It was a strong sound bite, and lit up his backbench, who at that point were desperate for any kind of vigorous counter-attack, but it may not be the best analogy to stick with. Here are some reasons why.

In a private company, if an employee had asked superiors whether they were in compliance with policy and had been reassured that they were, they might at least have an argument that the company was complicit in the wrongful act.

If some (very few, up to 13?) company superiors were aware of or conspired in assembling money and concocting falsehoods to obscure unethical behaviour, well…at the very least, the company would want to ensure that justice was not just swift, but fair, and shared among all those who played a role.

If any of that sounds like a defence of Mike Duffy, it's not.

Mr. Duffy acknowledged participating in acts that were unethical, including lying to Canadians about what he did.

In a corporate setting with rules to promote whistle blowing, Mr. Duffy's revelations might well earn him a lighter sanction. Instead Mr. Duffy's judge is someone with an obvious conflict of interest, who seems to feel that Mr. Duffy is even more worthy of censure because he revealed uncomfortable facts.

Pushing the corporate analogy further, it's a fair bet that if the Prime Minister were the CEO of a major corporation, he would be on the carpet with his board of directors by now.

Likely, there would already have been at least one emergency board meeting. At that meeting, board members, living up to their obligations, would be asking probing questions of the CEO.

If they received as little, or as inconsistent information as Canadians are getting, I suspect the CEO would be removed, lawyers would be called in to help understand and limit the liability to the company, and someone would have made a public statement apologizing on behalf of the company.

But let's imagine the CEO disclosed more to the board, and that the facts were essentially consistent with the story Mr. Harper has most recently laid out.

Would board members say thanks for sharing, good by us, see you next quarter?

Doubtful. More likely, they would explore how the issue has been managed, discuss the damage that had been done to the reputation of the company, the morale of its employees and its future business prospects. Among the questions that might come up:

  • Why there hadn’t been more complete disclosure earlier?
  • What had been done to correct for the culture that had led to several people participating in a deceit that put the company’s reputation at such risk?
  • Have all the miscreants been identified and dealt with?
  • If there were people who knew about the scheme and failed to blow the whistle, were they still on the payroll, and if so why?
  • Why should it be considered “normal” to arrange payment of the legal costs of an offending employee’s participation in a deceit?

When Mr. Harper muses that private sector codes of conduct should be the standard by which his government should proceed, this invites unflattering analysis.

As bad as "staff" conduct appears, a diligent board of directors would by now critically examining the judgment exercised by management.

Mr. Harper is probably fortunate that politics doesn't operate by business management standards. Because it's far from clear whether a private company would enthusiastically back a leader who had made the choices the Prime Minister has been making for the last six months, in this affair. At the very least, they would demand better going forward.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada's leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC's popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.