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Politics To dodge the expenses scandal, Tories pretend they lead the mob

It's just not possible to put up a bulletproof defence of Senator Pamela Wallin. There are far too many problem claims among those reviewed by Deloitte to come to the conclusion that taxpayers were treated properly.

She calls them mistakes, and maybe they were.

But others are certainly entitled, based on the evidence, to call them something else. They were careless for sure, and implied a very broad definition of what she was employed by Canadians to do.

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But if it's easy to get perturbed or angry with Senator Wallin, the political story that interests me more is a different one.

In watching the work of the Conservatives on the Senate issue I can't help but be reminded of what one of my first clients told me, many years ago, was the greatest communications advice he ever heard.

This grizzled veteran of many public relations scraps told me, more or less, "when a posse is forming to run you out of town, the only thing to do is to get in front of it, hoist a baton, and make like it's a parade you are leading."

Now, as a life lesson, this is a bit sketchy, but there's some dark value in it when trying to battle a reputational crisis.

Watching the Conservatives on the Senate this year has been like watching this advice play out on the national stage. From the day CTV's Robert Fife broke the story about Nigel Wright's payment of Mike Duffy's disputed expenses, the Conservatives have been trying to make lemonade out of a bumper crop of lemons.

First, they asserted that since the Duffy funds were being repaid, there was no reason for taxpayers to be concerned. Rather, we should applaud the generous, public-spirited way Conservatives were handling this miscue.

Then, when it became apparent that this line didn't stir applause, we were told that in fact Nigel Wright had done a bad thing, one that required dismissal from his job. Possible legal trouble too. Certainly should be subject to scrutiny by the proper authorities, etc. Can we move on now?

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Next, as at least a few facts about the Wright financing arrangement became known, the government that considers its brand to be about accountability and probity flatly refused to provide any details about the arrangement, insisting that no one else in the Prime Minister's Office and certainly not the Prime Minister himself knew anything about it. Heard it in the media, and were shocked like the rest of us. Except of course that when they heard about it, their first reaction was it was a pretty good idea.

You don't have to be Poirot, Columbo or Murdoch to wonder if this all adds up. In my family, I'm notorious for never seeing the plot twist or figuring out the ending of a mystery film. But even I am starting to get a funny feeling about all of this.

Which brings me to the case of Pamela Wallin.

We are asked to believe that even though the PM spent no time thinking about what to do about Mike Duffy's expense problem, and never discussed solutions with his chief of staff, he did find the time to look at Senator Wallin's expenses, and advised the House of Commons that all seemed in order.

Until, once again, that didn't look like it would fly. The posse started to grumble and mount up again.

Turn the page, and lo and behold, Wallin must exit the Conservative caucus immediately, and face a deeper investigation. Expressions of dismay and frustration from Senator Marjory LeBreton, who was responsible for the Conservative Senate caucus through all of this, but who has never said anything that sounds like "sorry, maybe I could have done a better job of helping our new Senators know what's what." Or maybe, when the party was asking them to attend all kinds of fundraisers here and there, coach them or insist that they follow some basic rules about how to separate public from partisan business.

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Instead, Conservative Senator David Tkachuk was moved to coach them once the auditing process began, just one more very poor choice that Conservatives would have howled about if in opposition. And now, of course, his version of the advice he gave is at odds with Senator Wallin's.

To try to regroup, the Conservatives have elected to move to the front of the mob and finally reveal the sweeping outrage they feel at the sins of Wright, Wallin and Duffy.

They insist we don't need to know anything more about what actually happened, just move on. Oh, and follow Pierre Poilievre, a Parliamentarian distinguished only by his zeal for obfuscation, as he does battle with the forces of Senate status quo-ism. Why spend any more time on the messy details, when it's clear that this relic of an institution must change. Or vanish.

It's possible that Canadians will, out of impatience, dismay, or a sense of resignation, let the government reset the agenda this fall without a more thorough exposition of this sorry mess. But, for the sake of the integrity of our political system, they shouldn't.

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.

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