FOR YEARS, STEPHEN HARPER’S CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT HAS DISMISSED JOURNALISTS, BUT TWO FORMER ONES ARE DOING MORE DAMAGE TO HIM THEN ANY ACTIVE ONES EVER COULD. THE KICKER? THEY’RE ON HIS SIDE.
Back in 2006, Stephen Harper lead the Conservative party to the first of three electoral victories in Canada, winning minority governments in 2006 and 2008 before finally winning his coveted majority in 2011. When Harper defeated Paul Martin in ’06, he promised a government of accountability and transparency, one where the scandals and accusations that soured so many Canadians on the Liberals who had governed since 1993 wouldn’t happen. He made plenty of other promises as well (a reduced G.S.T., a renewed military culture, fiscal prudence, etc.) but that was the big one, the one that earned Harper and his Conservatives their first-and most important-victory. But the actions of two former journalists are now threatening to demolish the carefully polished Conservative brand of public trust and responsibility. The two in question, however, aren’t investigative journalists or pundits looking to dig up deep dark secrets to generate scandalous controversy. No, rather, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, once respected veterans of the Canadian news business, are causing more damage to the Conservative government with their actions as Conservative Senators then they ever could have as journalists.
Make no mistake, this is not the first chink in the Conservative armour as defenders of truth and responsibility. The reason Canadians went to the polls in 2011 was because the Harper Government was found in contempt of Parliament, the first of any democratic government in the history of the British Commonwealth, for deliberately withholding information from Parliament. Not that it mattered much; six weeks later the Conservatives were elected a third straight time, this time winning the majority they had always hungered for, handing the Liberal party its worst ever national defeat and driving then Liberal leader Michael Ignattieff back to his teaching job at Harvard. Odds are if Harper knew that being found in contempt would have gotten him his majority, they would have lied to Parliament years earlier.
But the current crisis they find themselves trying to quash threatens to damage the Conservatives, and Harper himself, unlike anything before. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week or so, here’s a warp speed recap-a handful of Senators have grabbed headlines in the past few months for some interesting expense claims. Senators and MPs alike are allowed to claim reasonable living expenses as part of the execution of their duties, and receive partial or full reimbursement. And while it’s normal to think that plenty of politicians from all parties take advantage of this system and make a couple of extra bucks on top of their generous salaries, this group has been using the Canadian Treasury like a golden piggy bank. Former Liberal Senator Marc Harb has put Canadian taxpayers on the hook for over fifty thousand dollars while former Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau has asked John and Jane Q Canadian to hand over forty-eight thousand dollars (Brazeau has also made a few headlines recently for getting arrested for domestic violence). Both Senators recently resigned their seats in their respective caucuses, and now sit as independents. Both have also vowed to fight official demands that they repay the fraudulent claims in full after independent audits found them in violation of Senate rules (although the same auditors stated that the rules governing claims for living expenses were a more than a touch fuzzy). But the worst of the bunch has got to be Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, a pair who really should have known better.
Duffy has claimed over ninety-one grand in expenses, and trying to sort out the stories, excuses and outright fabrications he’s used to defend such ridiculous claims would drive Nancy Drew to drink. He complied with the order to pay his claims back, but after he secured a bank loan to repay his debt, he was cut a cheque by Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff (no word on what happened to the loan). Wallin is currently under investigation for claims exceeding three hundred thousand. Yep, you read that right. A big three with five zeros behind it. Then a decimal point and two more zeros. Both Duffy and Wallin have resigned their position within the Conservative caucus as well, sitting as independents until their respective audits/investigations are completed (much like Patrick Brazeau, although Brazeau’s public arrests will probably keep him from returning any time soon). In reality, while the official stories are that they didn’t want to be distractions to the government, their resignations were most likely orders from the Prime Minister’s Office itself.
But you have to ask yourself, how did these two not know better? Between the two of them, they have close to a century of journalistic experience. For twenty years, Duffy could be found grilling politicians every Sunday on various CTV political shows, and he earned enough respect in Ottawa’s political landscape that his Senate appointment in 2009 was seen as a huge coup by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (Duffy was a fundraising machine and attracted more than his fair share of votes in 2011). Wallin became the first woman to host Prime Time News in 1992 after a career that had seen her work at the Toronto Star, fill the position of CTV’s Ottawa Bureau chief as well anchor Canada AM. She also has 14 honourary doctorates, a spot in the Canadian Broadcasting Hall of Fame, is a member of the Order of Canada and is even an honourary Colonel in the Canadian Air Force. So, the question is, if these two had still been high-profile members of the national media, would hey have failed to notice a story like this? Would they not have sunk their teeth into it like a pit bull on a mailman and held on until it was bled dry? So how did they not know there was going to be about seventeen hundred mega tonnes of toxic political fallout when this story eventually broke?
This scandal has taken on a life of its own. Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s aforementioned Chief of Staff, was forced to resign over the ninety thousand dollar cheque he cut Duffy. And that’s a scandal all on its own. By all accounts, Wright is considered as smart as he is shrewd, and everyone who knows him professionally has asked the same question-what on earth was the man thinking? And secondly, is it possible that no one in the PMO, or even the Prime Minister himself, knew about his spontaneous generosity? And how does Stephen Harper look after he publicly defended Wright and all of his embattled Senators now that they’re either unemployed or have been exiled from the ranks of the Conservative party? NDP leader Thomas Mulclair has demanded an RCMP investigation (good luck Tom) and newly elected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has seized on the issue, allowing it to paint Harper and his government as scam artists and con men. Furthering the government’s headaches are new allegations that the final audit into Mike Duffy’s fraudulent claims was censored by the government to remove any trace of wrongdoing. Facepalm anyone?
Stephen Harper rode a blue wave of change into power seven years ago because of a scandal that he was able to exploit enough to damage not only his opponent, but his opponent’s brand. And once he had cracked the Liberals veneer, he chipped away at it methodically until he was able to break it almost beyond repair. And while this particular scandal lacks the size of the Sponsorship one that ultimately proved the downfall of the Liberals, it has almost as much meat, it paints Harper and his government as hypocrites and has provided the opposition (including a re-energized Liberal party) ammunition to assault the very foundation of the national Conservative party and everything they’re supposed to stand for.
The Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with most of the Canadian media. When they haven’t been able to manage the media, they have ignored or ridiculed it. Insiders have often maintained that part of the logic behind the Conservatives’ suspicion of journalists is that they could damage the government if allowed too close. The ultimate irony here is the scandal that former journalists-and now former Conservatives-Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin find themselves at the heart of, could help defeat the Harper government (or not, time will have to tell). Apparently, journalists are only powerful enough to hurt a Conservative Prime Minister when they’re on his team.