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Tories throw ministerial responsibility under robo-call bus

Former Tory staffer Michael Sona poses in front of the Peace Tower in an image taken from his Facebook page.

Michael Sona is living every political aide's worst nightmare. The 23-year-old Tory resigned last week in the growing shadow of the Conservative robo-call controversy. His name is now forever affixed to the fallout.

Adam Carroll will meet a similar fate. The recently resigned Liberal staffer published details of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews's divorce on Twitter under the handle Vikileaks30. Thanks for the memories.

Every staffer lives in the shadow of self-immolation. Every tweet, every joke, every Facebook message invites the prospect of personal catastrophe. If you screw up, the error is permanent, carved into stone by Google, Twitter, and 24-hour news.

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Dire consequences deter indiscretion. Even the most bull-headed staffers would rather ask permission than forgiveness – as Mr. Carroll now knows, the latter often ends in revising your résumé.

In politics, discipline is indispensible and idle hands bedevil your handiwork. Nowhere has this been truer than in Stephen Harper's campaigns and no one knows it better than Michael Sona. During last May's federal election, Mr. Sona, then a Conservative campaign worker, made national headlines when he tried to grab a ballot box at a polling station on the University of Guelph campus. It was a black eye for the Tories but it made little difference; the Liberals held Guelph, the Conservatives won the election—and Michael Sona went on to work for a Conservative MP.

So much for dire consequences.

On Monday, Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae stood in the House of Commons to apologize for his aide's misconduct. "I carry the can here," he later told reporters. "The guy at the top takes responsibility and I take it."

No such statement has come from the Conservatives as the robo-call scandal gathers steam. That should be no surprise. For six years, the Tories have systematically perverted the very idea of staff work. Instead of ministerial accountability, Canadians have seen an epidemic of responsibility-by-proxy as the Conservative game of whack-an-aide keeps the blameworthy blame-free. The Tory bag-carriers and their bosses – the young and the feckless – have found an antidote for accountability: No one needs scruples when you can simply fire your staff, then rehire them a few news cycles later. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Was Michael Sona really responsible for the robo-calls? Not likely – Tory staffers scarcely sneeze unless their superiors sign off. Still, one wonders how this week's news coverage will fit into Mr. Sona's next job interview. Unless, of course, the Conservatives rehire him. Again.

If they do, he will be in good company.

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During the 2008 election, it was revealed that Mr. Harper had delivered a plagiarized speech in support of the Iraq war. His speechwriter resigned. The following year, the Harper government awarded him a sole-sourced "research" contract worth nearly $25,000.

During the same campaign, a Conservative spokesman told a reporter the father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan was an "Iggy supporter" after he criticized Mr. Harper's foreign policy. The flack was quickly "suspended" from the Tory campaign – only to return a few months later as director of communications to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.

In 2009, then-natural resources Minister Lisa Raitt was caught on tape describing a life-threatening shortage of medical isotopes as "sexy." Her communications director resigned. A few months later, Ottawa's Conservative-friendly mayor Larry O'Brien hired her as his own.

Last March, a letter from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office spelling out the Tory plan to target "very ethnic" voters was mistakenly sent to NDP MP Linda Duncan. One of Mr. Kenney's aides resigned. Three months later, Mr. Kenney rehired the same aide as his director of communications.

And when, last fall, Mr. Kenney's department conspired with Sun Media to "fake the oath" of citizenship on live television, that same staffer blamed a civil servant – and then apologized to Sun Media.

Ministerial accountability is meant to make aides immaterial. The Conservatives have said so themselves. In 2010, when the House of Commons ethics committee summoned Stephen Harper's communications director to testify about the government's stonewalling of access-to-information requests, then-transport minister John Baird appeared, uninvited, in his place.

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"Ministers will appear and answer the questions for staff who are responsible to them," Conservative house leader Jay Hill announced in the Commons a few hours later.

Yet in the end, it is always Tory staffers – not their superiors – who hit the fan. The robo-controversy may yet claim more significant scalps than Michael Sona's. It may also blow over by next week. But the revolving Conservative door of partisan cannon fodder will continue; once a government gives up on accountability, only the electorate can demand it back.

Adam Goldenberg is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He was chief speechwriter to Michael Ignatieff and served as a senior aide in the McGuinty government.

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