For a government already adrift at midterm, the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair, coupled with the resignation from caucus of another Conservative senator, Pamela Wallin, represents an unwelcome distraction. It's doubtful that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's speech to this caucus on Tuesday – in which he declared himself "very upset" – will quickly end the distraction.
This is supposed to be a government fixated on "jobs and the economy," or so every announcement says, despite unemployment's being 7.2 per cent and growth's being 1.5 per cent, dismal numbers by any historical measure.
For a while, however, the fixation shifted to damage control. When it was over, not much control had been exercised over the damage. From the relatively innocent start of the affair, leaks about expenses for four senators (three Conservatives and one Liberal), the Harper government and its minions had tried all the classic techniques: dismiss, deny, stonewall, delay and cover up.
These were, of course, the very charges the old Reform Party (from which many of this group of Conservatives emerged) used to castigate the Liberals, often with good reason. But that was then, and now is now, and it's the Conservatives who are the ones displaying the traits they once decried.
If history be a guide, the details of this affair will be soon forgotten. In the great scheme of things that will lead to the results of the next election, the fate of a handful of senators and one chief of staff will not count for much, if anything at all. Many Canadians – the majority most of the time – do not follow politics, and what little they do process tends to reconfirm their already formed beliefs, one of which is that all politics is shady and all governments display varying degrees of incompetence and inefficiency.
If – and this is a big if – any long-term political damage is done, it will be because the affair illustrates two characteristics of the government, neither of which is terribly pleasant.
The first is ubiquitous, juvenile partisanship in which there seems too few people prepared to step back and say, "Wait a minute, is this right?" As is evidenced on the energy file, this is a government of salesmen, not statesmen. Salesmen don't let facts stand in the way of the pitch, tend to be very inward-looking and, when confronted with a defect to their product, try to polish the blemish rather than investigate the cause.
The second, flowing from the first, is the rather monochromatic way the government looks at the world. These Conservatives are a far narrower coalition than previous Progressive Conservative governments that were much more moderate and rounded in how they saw the world – which ultimately drove harder-line conservatives to a revolt that broke up the conservative world. When that world re-emerged, a narrower ideology took hold.
Within this ideological framework, there are few people willing to say everything is not black or white. And so a kind of blinkered mentality set in that, to some extent, all parties in power can exhibit but that is particularly prevalent and, ultimately, dangerous in ideologically narrow groups.
Ms. Wallin and Mr. Duffy were not made senators to use such analytical gifts as they had as journalists, but rather to use their communication skills to sell the party's message, having taken the party's coin. And Mr. Wright, who was himself a long-time fierce partisan, has now been replaced by someone, Ray Novak, whose entire political career has been at the service of Stephen Harper – hardly someone whose track record would lead to the question "Is this right?" as opposed to "What does this do for us?"
A major cabinet shuffle is in the works, and existing ministers have been asked whether they intend to run in the next election. But shuffles tend to be overrated as elixirs for political retooling because voters focus on the leader.
There are eight or 10 backbenchers who have served their apprenticeships and could not be worse, and quite likely would be better, than some of the nondescript cabinet ministers.
And then there are the higher-profile ministers who might wish to leave: to wit, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, afflicted with a painful ailment, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay, with a portfolio full of cock-ups, a new infant son and a chance to make money somewhere else, the last Tory surrounded by the hard-line breed running the show.