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opinion

In a memo early last year, Nigel Wright, then chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wrote that the controversy surrounding Senator Mike Duffy needed to be tackled "in a way that does not lead to the Chinese water torture of new facts in the public domain." It was necessary, he wrote, to "stop our public agony."

The "agony" eventually ceased, but it could resume soon. There's the highly consequential matter of the trial of Mr. Duffy who faces 31 charges, including fraud, breach of trust and bribery. In a court hearing Tuesday, we will find out more about the actual timing of the trial, which could well be critical to the Conservatives' re-election prospects. The party will be desperately hoping the trial can be pushed back beyond next fall's election date. If it can be delayed even until late spring, the Conservatives have the option of calling an early spring election to avoid the fallout.

The water torture will not derive from findings of Mr. Duffy's guilt or innocence. It will come from how Prime Minister's Office officials try to explain their efforts to make the whole disaster go away, which we learned about late last year in an RCMP report about the affair.

Some of the charges against the suspended senator relate to allegations that he pressured the PMO to repay disallowed housing and other expenses he billed. Mr. Duffy's lawyer, Donald Bayne, has said he will make the case that Mr. Duffy did not want to partake in any such repayment scheme – a "scenario" he said the PMO "concocted for purely political purposes."

It was part of a PMO cover-up, the lawyer said. "It's the old story – the cover-up is always more damaging than the original issue," he told reporters last year. "Cover-up," a term made all the more infamous during Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, is a ruinous word in politics. The drip, drip, drip of testimony on a cover-up in the Prime Minister's Office would be water torture indeed.

In respect to the scandal, which included the payment of $90,000 in hush money to Mr. Duffy from Mr. Wright, we need not take Mr. Bayne's word about there being a cover-up. Mr. Harper's own spokesman, Jason MacDonald, said as much. Last fall, appearing on CTV's Question Period, he said that the RCMP documents conclude that the Prime Minister was not involved with "the cover-up that we now know took place."

The trial could well confirm that Mr. Harper did not know of the payment Mr. Wright made to Mr. Duffy or (although he has been a hands-on Prime Minister) about any cover-up.

But that hardly means the PM or his party would be off the hook. It's Mr. Harper's office. He sets the tone, the direction, the governing morality. As we speak, as a result of so many instances of dirty tricks, ethics transgressions, muzzling of opponents and the like, there is a widespread impression the governing morality is in the toilet. Coming in the run-up to an election, the Duffy trial could seal the deal and the fate of Mr. Harper's government.

Mr. Duffy, who says the millions of Canadians who voted for Mr. Harper will be shocked to see how his Tories operate, would like to see the actual trial begin by the start of the year. Mr. Bayne has signalled that he doesn't want proceedings dragged out, describing the 16 months waiting through a protracted police investigation before charges were laid as "awful" for his client, who he said has never had a fair hearing in the Senate or the media.

In the so-called in-and-out affair, in which the Conservatives exceeded their spending limits for the 2006 campaign, the party was able to use litigation to push back the matter's reckoning by several years, to the point where it hardly registered.

With the stakes much larger, that kind of scenario is what they need again. The Conservatives will resort to any tactic they can, including an early election, to make it happen.