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Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leaves the Ottawa Courthouse after testifying at the Mike Duffy trial in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

In 2006, Stephen Harper rode into Ottawa with a mandate to clean up the ethical wreckage of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. The Conservative Party leader moved quickly as the prime minister of a minority government. He banned corporate and union donations, and lowered the individual donation limit to $1,000. He toughened federal lobbying rules, created the Parliamentary Budget Office and gave additional powers to the Ethics Commissioner.

His goal, he said over and over, was to return accountability to Ottawa. And he did that, to a degree. His reforms have helped bring the federal government up to date on important issues of political financing and budget oversight.

Not surprisingly, though, Mr. Harper failed to target the real source of Ottawa's accountability crisis. As the trial of Mike Duffy has reminded us, the greatest threat to responsible government in Canada is none other than the Prime Minister's Office.

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Over the past 40 years, the PMO has morphed into a parasite on the body of Parliament that prospers by sucking the democracy out of its host. The court-documented efforts by Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff to Mr. Harper, to control the Senate from inside the PMO are outrageous only because they have been exposed by Mr. Duffy's lawyer. The real scandal lies below the surface, where the PMO uses its toxic tentacles to neutralize every part of government that might compete with it for power, so that today we are ruled by an imperial prime minister, unaccountable to anyone or anything.

Do not blame Mr. Harper alone for this. The expansion of the PMO began under Pierre Trudeau, and every prime minister since then has been responsible for increasing its malignant grip on Parliament. Brian Mulroney was the first to name a "chief of staff" and elevate that person above the principal secretary who was, up till then, the highest unelected authority in the PMO. Jean Chrétien relied on the protective coating of the PMO to shield himself from direct responsibility for the sponsorship scandal, just as Mr. Harper is now doing in the Duffy affair.

But Mr. Harper, so determined to bring accountability to every other part of government in 2006, can't pretend he didn't know then that the PMO was where the heart of the problem lay. The Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal had made that clear. As the commission's follow-up report in 2006 said, "Two factors – a general lack of transparency about government spending, and a reluctance by the public service to call attention to irregularities because of the increased concentration of political power in the PMO – are weaknesses in the present-day system of Canadian government. They have tended to appreciate in recent decades, leading to a reduction and a distortion of ministerial responsibility and accountability [and] a corresponding diminution of the role of Parliament as a counterbalance to the power of the executive in Canadian government."

Those weaknesses are more apparent than ever. Today the PMO is virtually a government unto itself. It ruthlessly imposes its will on MPs, cabinet ministers, Commons committees and civil servants, and obscures expenditures and legislation in the dark corners of omnibus budget bills. Any insubordination is, as a memo released in the Duffy trial on Tuesday reveals, viewed as a failure on the part of members of Parliament to "embrace" their status as minions of the executive – a complete distortion of how our system is meant to work.

The PMO enforces its will two ways: through the prime minister's power to appoint and fire cabinet ministers, committee members and deputy ministers; and his or her power to approve the nomination of everyone who runs for the party. An MP who shows signs of independent thought can be replaced by a more docile "team player" at the next election. A cabinet minister who fails to lip-sync the PMO's talking points won't be in cabinet for long. Deputy ministers who question PMO directives find themselves shelved.

You merely have to look at the exception to prove the rule. The prime minister can't fire senators, since they remain in office until they resign or turn 75. The Duffy scandal escalated because the PMO couldn't demand obedience from the only parliamentarians immune to the usual threats. This no doubt partly explains Mr. Harper's subsequent refusal to name new senators.

The question is, can balance be restored? And would a change of government be enough? Voters ready to reject Mr. Harper should remember that his replacement will immediately be handed the keys to the PMO. There is no evidence that Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau would do anything differently. The political benefits of being an imperial prime minister have so far proven impossible to resist.

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That said, there are ways of turning our lapdog Parliament back into a watchdog. We'll discuss them in an editorial next week.

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