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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's At Issue panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

When it comes to the Senate spending scandal, who can blame the Prime Minister for being tempted to take a see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing approach.

His political opponents can only hope that he tries.

For the man who made accountability a household word in Canada 10 years ago, the other party leaders will be delighted to replay the tape of the various things Mr. Harper has had to say about the Senate, while reminding people that more than half of the occupants of the Chamber were appointed by this Prime Minister.

Stephen Harper was a merciless puncher when it came to taking down Paul Martin over misspending by the Liberals. He fought ruthlessly and relentlessly.

These days, on the Senate issue at least, he seems awkward, unprepared, off his game. Ebullience and forcefulness are gone, replaced by a tentative and mild-mannered tone.

Let's briefly review the various stages of anger, grief and denial that have marked Mr. Harper's interventions on this subject.

Back when Pamela Wallin was the focus of attention, Stephen Harper rallied to defend a fellow Conservative. "Her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian travelling from that particular area of the country over that period of time," Mr. Harper said. It's obvious, in retrospect, that nobody in the Langevin Block, including the Prime Minister, had made much effort to ensure he was on solid ground.

Later, as the public heat rose, Mr. Harper became angry sheriff, reprising the role that brought him to office in 2006, when he nailed the Liberals daily for abusing public funds. In a speech to Conservative Party members in Calgary in 2013, Stephen Harper reminded everyone that he knew how to call a spade a spade, when it came to people wasting your tax money.

"These senators have shown little or no remorse for these actions. And, friends, while we do not know whether these actions were criminal, that is not relevant… In private life, you would be fired for doing anything resembling this …The Senate should to the right thing, now and suspend those Senators without pay."

After the Senate voted to expel Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, Mr. Harper was hoping to reap some credit for dealing with the abusers. "Removing these three senators from the public payroll was the right thing to do…They should not be collecting a public paycheque," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.

Back then the Senate was very much Mr. Harper's business. It made perfect sense that the Prime Minister took a strong position, and it was no surprise that Conservative MPs were encouraged to repeat messages of anger at the offending Senators and enthusiasm for the suspensions.

Voters wanted leadership, action. Mr. Harper chose to stand and be counted.

Today is a new day, we're dangerously close to an election. A cloud of spending scandal hanging over the Senate is never going to be a good thing for an incumbent.

With a tough fight on his hands to win another term, Mr. Harper wants, maybe even needs, the Senate mess to dissipate somehow, soon. Throughout his European trip this week, the Prime Minister has been largely unavailable to journalists as the Senate scandal expanded with the release of the Auditor-General's report.

When he was obliged to say something about the findings, Mr. Harper seemed to have little more than a passing interest. "Obviously, we find any abuse of taxpayer dollars by parliamentarians in either chamber to be unacceptable. On this matter, though, as you know, the Senate is an independent body,"

For a man asking for a fourth victory on a platform of strong leadership, his new-found trepidation about what to do with the Senate might be a cause for concern among Conservative workers and candidates – like a watching a tired boxer whose arms are dropping, leaving an unprotected jaw.

They know that given his past on this issue, he'll need to do better in the future, if he's going to win again.

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