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Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Duffy trial cuts to heart of the PMO Add to ...

The Mike Duffy trial is proving to have significant public value. With the thousands of e-mails tabled, it opens a window on the operation of the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s not as good as an oral record like the Nixon White House tapes. But it’s the next best thing.

Serial abuses of power are something that have long been suspected of Stephen Harper’s team. They’ve been written about in books and articles by some journalists starting many years ago. Other scribes have pooh-poohed the notion, saying it’s being too tough on the Conservative Leader. But with the text traffic, we get harder evidence of some of the activities. A trove of exhibit A’s.

On the Senate controversy alone, the work of PMO operatives included: promising Mr. Duffy he would be removed from an independent audit; concocting a secret plan to have the taxpayer-supported Tory treasury pay Mr. Duffy’s debts while telling the public a different story; planning to create a puppet-on-a-string Senate subcommittee to create a constitutional formula that would allow Mr. Duffy to continue sitting as a Prince Edward Island senator; repeatedly ordering up blatantly false party responses to questions in the Commons on the controversy.

Nigel Wright, as Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, was an architect of much of the scheming. On Friday, journalists wrote of him being in a “shaken” state while Mr. Duffy’s lawyer Donald Bayne pinned him to the wall with one e-mail revelation after another. On Monday, the grilling continued with Mr. Wright trying to hold to the line that Mr. Harper was kept in the dark about repayment plans for Mr. Duffy’s expenses.

On the hustings, the Senate controversy continued to dog Mr. Harper, keeping him on the defensive, the media continually challenging his version of events. Mr. Harper, who confers with his senior staff several times a day, repeats daily he was kept out of the loop on the scandal. He may well sustain the belief that he didn’t know specifically of the infamous $90,000 payout. But all the other nefarious plotting? Will the public believe he didn’t know about any of it?

We now learn that Ray Novak, the PM’s most intimate adviser, was also informed via e-mail of the payout to Senator Duffy. As a defence, the PMO puts out the credibility-stretcher that Mr. Novak, on an issue as important as this one, didn’t bother to read the e-mails.

The Senate is supposed to be an independent body. The e-mails reveal how the PMO regarded it as a plaything. In one instance where the Red Chamber goes off PMO script, there is outrage from Nigel Wright and company. How dare our pawns do this?

Justin Trudeau wants accountability. He’s calling on Mr. Harper to dismiss some of those who orchestrated the Senate deception. Cue the laugh track. Mr. Harper very rarely disciplines wrongdoers in his government.

Given developments here, a New York Times column on the weekend was well timed. It was titled, The Closing of the Canadian Mind. It recounted examples of Mr. Harper’s penchant for secrecy and obstructionism and his attempts at undermining our democratic institutions. With apparent exaggeration the author wrote that Mr. Harper “imagined Canada as a kind of Singapore.”

To close the Canadian mind is what the PM would dearly love to do in respect to the Senate scandal. But it gets more public and more serious. It becomes less about Mike Duffy, who so far appears to be winning the case, than the immorality level in the most powerful office in the land.

I was speculating a while back that if integrity becomes a big issue in this campaign, Mr. Harper is in serious trouble. It is indeed becoming an important issue. The campaign still has two months to go. That’s two months for the Conservatives to move Canadian minds onto something else. They need to hope that the people, like Mr. Novak, don’t read the e-mails.

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