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Five years later, Tories see their ethical advantage slip away

Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks with local MP Tony Clement before making an announcement in Huntsville, Ont., June 19, 2008. Huntsville hosted the 2010 G8 meetings at the Deerhurst resort.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For a brief moment on Monday, it looked like a possible ethics breach might deliver a big hit to Stephen Harper's campaign.

Before long, what first appeared sensational became considerably less so. There are too many ambiguities around the Auditor-General's investigation of last summer's G8 and G20 expenses for the leak of a draft report to have much lasting impact. What initially caused the biggest stir - a mention of potential illegality - seemed to be debunked by the leak of subsequent drafts. And the real scandal may be the initial leak itself, more than the draft's preliminary (and subsequently revised) findings.

Still, this little episode - and a separate controversy the same day in which the Auditor-General complained about her words being misrepresented by the government - was a reminder of the extent to which the Conservatives have ceded one of the big advantages that brought them to power five years ago.‪

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A variety of factors were behind the change in government in 2006, among them Paul Martin's confused leadership and a general sense of fatigue after more than a decade of Liberal rule. But ethics and accountability were right at the top of the list

The sponsorship scandal, and a host of more minor controversies, had given the sense of government run amok. The RCMP's announcement in the middle of the campaign that it was launching a criminal investigation into a Finance Department leak - a bizarre intervention that eventually reflected worse on the Mounties than on the government - at the time drove home the impression that the Liberals were covered in muck. And the Conservatives capitalized by making sweeping new accountability rules a centrepiece of their platform.

When they enacted that legislation as one of their first acts in office, the Conservatives seemed to be building a long-term edge. At every opportunity, they sought to draw a contrast with the government of Jean Chrétien and Mr. Martin, aiming to do permanent damage to the Liberal brand. And indeed, that brand is still hurt by the sponsorship scandal in particular - if not in every province, then certainly in Quebec.

But in only a few years, the Conservatives have lost much claim to the high ground. Controversies afflicting prominent members of their party have ranged from the tawdry (Maxime Bernier, Rahim Jaffer, Bruce Carson) to the wonkish (Bev Oda). More importantly, the flow of information in Ottawa has slowed to a trickle - culminating in the government being found in contempt of Parliament for withholding details related to the costs of its anti-crime bills, however self-serving that judgment by the opposition parties might have been.

Meanwhile, the sprinkling of cash around Industry Minister Tony Clement's riding during the G8 - whatever the Auditor-General has to say about it - cuts a little close to the pork-barrelling Mr. Harper once railed against. So, too, does the apparent prioritization of infrastructure projects in government-held ridings, rather unhelpfully alluded to by star Tory candidate Larry Smith during this campaign.

The Conservatives dismiss most of this as white noise, and the polls suggest most voters agree with them. Unless something turns dramatically in this week's leaders' debates, or some earth-shattering scandal emerges in the campaign's final weeks, ethics will not cause them to lose on May 2.

But neither will it help keep the Conservatives in power - and perhaps the erosion of that edge was inevitable. Rare is the party that can govern for any amount of time without at least a few people in its midst causing embarrassment, particularly now that the ethics bar has been set higher than it was previously.

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The Conservatives were a new party in 2006, so they had an unusual lack of ethical baggage. They were never going to have that luxury again. But it's nevertheless surprising quite how quickly they allowed the issue to become a wash.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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