Quick: Name a modern prime minister who came to power promising to make Ottawa more transparent, accountable and democratic, only to become mired in a self-inflicted scandal characterized precisely by a lack of those three things.
You could answer “Justin Trudeau” and get a gold star, but “Stephen Harper” would be correct, too. They are, in this regard, the same man.
Mr. Harper came to power in 2006 on a vow to run an open and transparent government that gave more power to MPs and more accountability to voters.
Mr. Trudeau likewise rode a ray of sunlight into office, promising to give MPs and committees more say, and to end the omnibus bills that Mr. Harper repeatedly used to slip unexamined legislation past the gaze of Parliamentarians.
Both lived up to some of their promises. Mr. Harper banned political donations from corporations and unions, and created the Parliamentary Budget Office. Mr. Trudeau reformed Senate appointments and increased the independence of Mr. Harper’s PBO.
But both also embraced the pernicious concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office that has been undermining Canadian democracy for more than 40 years. Similar to the Mike Duffy affair before it, the SNC-Lavalin scandal that is consuming the Trudeau government is a byproduct of that decision.
Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Trudeau and his unelected advisers in the PMO treat MPs as life-support systems for votes in the House of Commons, cabinet ministers as devices for transmitting talking points, parliamentary committees as rubber stamps and deputy ministers as political enablers.
And like the Conservatives, the Liberals have made a series of escalating errors in judgment caused by the hubris that accumulates in every PMO as its princelings develop a taste for moving people around like pawns on a chessboard that only they can see, without accountability.
Take the Duffy affair. It should never have become as damaging to Mr. Harper as it did.
A senator was ordered to repay ineligible expenses, and somehow Nigel Wright, Mr. Harper’s wealthy chief of staff, believed an appropriate way to make the issue disappear would be to write a cheque payable to the senator to cover the amount owing, which happened to be $90,172.
That self-belief combined with a lack of self-awareness led to an embarrassing criminal trial for Mr. Duffy and raised questions about the behaviour of Mr. Harper’s chief of staff – a position that never existed before Brian Mulroney invented it in 1987, and which is emblematic of the transformation of the prime minister into a kind of elected sovereign, attended by an imperial court.
It also led to the spectacle of a current Harper PMO staffer speaking to a former Harper PMO staffer while the latter was under oath and testifying in the 2015 trial of Mr. Duffy, who was ultimately acquitted. The gall of it was astounding.
And now Mr. Trudeau has fallen prey to the same toxic hubris, with the resulting scandal that intensifies every time his office tries to tamp it down.
Breaking an election promise by using an omnibus bill to slip remediation agreements into last year’s budget for the benefit of SNC-Lavalin, and then pressuring the justice minister to play ball, and then demoting her when she didn’t, and then blaming her for not saying anything if she felt pressured, and then standing by while “Liberal insiders” spread rumours about her character – that’s called doing your job in the modern PMO.
But that anti-democratic arrogance has been no more helpful to Mr. Trudeau than it was to Mr. Harper. The PMO’s actions have left Mr. Trudeau’s brand – a modern leader, above the fray of partisan politics, a feminist, an agent of reconciliation – looking thinner than the fabric of the colourful socks he likes to wear.
If Canadians want a different kind of prime minister, they should look not at a candidate’s haberdashery – or at the dimples in their cheeks, for that matter.
What they should ask is, will you reverse the concentration of power in the PMO? Will you shift power back to MPs? Will you enhance their independence and the role of the House of Commons as a check on the power of the executive? Or do you intend to follow the examples of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Harper and rule as an imperial prime minister?