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.
The trial of Mike Duffy has begun. But the conversation it has spawned is less about the trial and more about the political implications for the Conservatives. Conservatives argue the whole affair is stale news and Canadians have more important things on their mind. "It's the economy," etc.
Maybe. But they know that the difference between an election win and a loss is a shift of five or six voters out of 100. They know that all the e-mail traffic and testimony about what people said and did, when they didn't think they would be observed, is titillating, in part because it is so rarely on display. And they know that the other parties' advertising teams will be standing by to harvest the best bits.
Much of what happens at the trial may not be all that important in the larger scheme of things. But some voters will tune in anyway – because, well, human nature. There's a reason celebrity magazines have pages devoted to "Stars – they're just like us"; photographs of people strolling with their dogs, holding their Big Gulps, and wearing no makeup. Seeing what's usually varnished, in an unvarnished state, has stopping power.
So if voters are drawn to watching trial, it won't be because of the 90 grand.
It won't be about whether the Senate does useful work. Or public money being spent on party matters.
It won't really even about the ol 'Duff. He's become the stage on which this story will unfold, not the story itself.
The amount of money involved has lost its shock value, as has the idea that the Senate is a mess.
Instead, there are two things that might fascinate more voters than the Conservatives hope will pay attention.
One is the stakes for the Prime Minister. Mr. Harper has said different things at different moments about the Duffy affair: when he learned about it, and what he did when informed.
Some of his statements were undoubtedly truthful. But not all of them can be equally truthful. His reputation for personal integrity hangs in the balance. This trial might shore it up or break it down.
When Nigel Wright testifies – perhaps he will say he fabricated his assertion that the PM was "good to go" with the broad outlines of the arrangement. But that seems unlikely.
What's more likely is that his testimony won't square with the PM's line, that as soon as he heard about this scheme he knew it was wrong and ordered it shut down.
Hardly anyone lost a job over this mess. Many who were involved in it are still on the public payroll. It's reasonable to wonder if that is because the PM is a lenient boss or is hoping the wagons stay circled?
The second reason people might pay attention to this trial is voyeurism.
Plenty of people enjoy observing what other folks do, how they react to unplanned situations, especially adversity. Watching others live (and botch up) their lives has become big money in the TV business.
The inner workings of politics make for a decent reality program. There's such a contrast between the attractive, seamless, slickly packaged output parties strive for, and the truth of what goes on behind the scenes.
It's not that it's all bad or venal or corrupt.
More that it's filled with the same stuff that every workplace is: rivalries, petty jealousies, mistakes, bad calls, missed signals, raw instincts. Less strategy and more just getting through the day. The number of days that go according to any plan are fewer than the number of days when it's all about reacting quickly and hoping for the best.
When I stopped by the CBC bureau in Ottawa on the opening day of the trial, I gazed at a giant five-inch stack of papers, one of seven that were tabled that day. I couldn't help but think how anxiety-inducing the production of such documents must be for Conservative officials.
The testimony emerging in this trial will be chock full of vignettes about who spent how much of our money on what, who said or thought what about whom, and what people spend their days doing.
We'll see whether Mike Duffy is guilty. But in Ottawa this week, that's not what's been keeping people up at night.