Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Little Bit of Moonlight Limelight

There's a whole bundle of things we need to talk about, so lets get right down to it.

Last weekend, a note from a charity rocked Parliament Hill by asking Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to return $20,000 from a speaking engagement that they said failed to produce results and left them running a negative from the event. Seizing the opportunity to talk about something other than the Senate for a moment, the Conservatives jumped quickly onto the band wagon they had already been riding and attacked Trudeau for charging a charity for his presence. 

It seemed a small relief for the Conservatives as the media hopped onto the story, and even Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall hopped aboard and condemned Trudeau for it and went as far as to suggested he should return cash for an event he did in Saskatoon. Then another day passes by and the small relief turns into a major headache.

As early as Saturday, the twitterverse was abuzz with rumours about Tory connections to the charity. While some might offhandedly dismiss this idea as a "liberal scheme", others took it a bit more seriously and began to do some digging. And bit by bit, the entire affair began to stink. 

It started with a reference to Judith Baxter, a member of the board for the Grace Foundation, being appointed to a position with museums in 2007 by the Conservatives. Then it followed that she also received a Diamond Jubilee medal, presented by her local Conservative MP Rob Moore (and her husband Glendon Baxter also sits on the riding association for Mr. Moore).

Then it comes out that the letter requesting a return of funds came from Mr. Moore through the PMO. That's too many ducks in a row to be considered coincidence at this point. 

And then enter small town print journalism. The Barrie Advance received some more information about Justin Trudeau's money loosing speaking events, along with a set of instructions for relating that information to their audience. The information and the directions came from Erica Meekes, a communications officer in the PMO. 

And rather than follow their directions that the information being released under "a source", the Barrie Advance shook the tree and published the story as coming from the PMO. Numerous people have already lauded The Advance for standing up for integrity and media freedom; and the accolades are well deserved. 

Harper, in his usual fashion, deflected questions following the G8 meeting in Ireland about the role the PMO played in releasing this information. Though he did use the opportunity to continue attacking Trudeau for taking money in the first place. 

Either way, the situation (which has not played out the way the Tories had hoped) at least has started a public discussion on the role expected of MPs. NDP MP Charlie Angus continues to present the best case, by framing public speaking and appearances as part of the job of an MP, not something that is billed as extra.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has also chimed in on the issue, but in a less aggressive way than Harper. Mulcair has said that he doesn't care about the charges that took place before Trudeau became a MP; but he does care about charges that came after he was elected, and whether he skipped out on Parliamentary votes and duties in order to give these appearances. 

As that is a much more valid argument then the one being presented by Harper. MPs are elected to represent their constituents, and are paid well to do so, and it should be considered their full time job. If an MP does public speaking rounds while the House is adjourned, that's no real problem. But if they're jetting around the country, skipping votes and procedures in the House, one has to wonder their motivation for being there in the first place.

Jack Layton rightly called out Michael Ignatieff's poor attendance in the House during the last election, and it definitely affected the framing of the election. Trudeau has the danger of falling into the same trap, but to a worse degree if it comes out that he indeed skipped his primary job as an MP to offer his services as a public speaker. 

I feel we need to draw a distinction at this point. If an MP misses a vote in Parliament, because they are in their home riding attending a function for which they aren't being paid, I think that is an acceptable reason to be missing a vote or question period or what have you. But if a Parliamentarian, who would otherwise be in Ottawa, is being paid to speak of paid to do anything else that is where it starts to become suspect. 

We elect these people to represent us, and if they aren't in the House or in their riding doing their primary job, we need to start wondering their motivations for being there in the first place. And we also need to wait and see whether or not any public money was used to provide for transportation to and from these speaking events or for any expenses during them. 

If that turns out to be the case, then by all means lets throw the the book at him, but for now the only issue we really have is putting a secondary career ahead of his primary job. And while this does have the smacking of a PMO smear campaign, there are some valid questions to ask around this situation and we need to discuss what is and what isn't acceptable for an MP to do for a "moonlighting" career; if its even acceptable for an MP to moonlight at all.

As mentioned above, Brad Wall also waded into the debate in a somewhat awkward foray into a situation that doesn't really affect him. Wall called on Trudeau to repay the money, plus the funds paid for an event in Saskatoon, and slightly attacked Trudeau's character as well. There's been some speculation about why exactly Wall waded into this debate.

Murray Mandrake at the Star Phoenix has suggested that Wall, as Canada's most popular premier, condemned the action at the behest of the PMO. Leftdog, and I happen to share this view point, sees it rather as Wall's potential opening salvo in a federal politics run. Wall has denied interest in a federal run, but I'd say its safe to say Wall is an ambitious man, and ambitious men will always take an opening presented to them.

Harper, as I've pointed out before, is crashing and burning and taking the Conservative brand with him. If the knives come out at the Conservative Convention at the end of the month, the first knife comes from someone with their own leadership ambitions, and that could be someone like Wall. As a non-MP, Wall would be able to best distance himself from the current scandals and offer an alternative to any of the heir apparent currently in caucus; a fact, I'm sure Wall is well aware of. 

Though, Wall has seemingly tied himself up in the moonlighting intrigue in a less than flattering manner: since it's come out that current MLA and Sask Party caucus member Gene Makowsky was doing the same as Trudeau; giving speeches and charging for the privilege. Pat Atkinson, former NDP cabinet member, has also pointed out that former Sask Party MLA Serge LeClerc accepted speaking fees while in office and as a legislative secretary.

So, while Wall may be free of the scandals associated with the Tories, there's some examples of indulging his caucus in the same issues that are now causing trouble in Ottawa (which would allow anyone to paint Wall as cut from the same political cloth, and not the real beacon of change a federal leadership run would present him as.)

I'll close with a simple thought: there's an idea that being in office means serving the public interest, and that when you run for office, you put a bit of your life on hold to serve. That means an absence from your previous career, it means long hours away from family, and it means getting out around your constituency and meeting with your electors so you can represent their interests. Anyone who isn't committed to that idea, needs to question why they're running for office in the first place; and the Canadian electorate need to ensure that people who don't hold respect for the office and the job don't get to hold the office at all.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ahead of the Eight Ball

Just when we thought things couldn't get lower in Ottawa, CBC News breaks the story of the PMO's special fund; an ultra-secret cash reserve that few people knew about. The covert existence of such a fund is bad enough, but the cash trail for it is where things really start to get sticky.

The fund comes from money raised by the party; which means that taxpayer money exists in the kitty. For those confused about that, keep in mind that political donations are subsidized by generous tax credits and money from the soon to be defunct vote subsidy would be part of the money going into this fund. Ergo, and no avoiding it, taxpayer money exists in this fund.

Things get worse when you find out that the sole signer for this account is the PM's Chief of Staff; in this case, the former Nigel Wright. That alone raises more questions about Wright's role in the Duffy repayment; especially if the fund was an option as a golden carrot to repay Wright after the fact. Conservatives have already taken to denying that the fund was used to pay Duffy's expenses; but have  hemmed and hawed on whether the fund could have been used to repay Wright after the heat died down. 

The key factor here is to make sure that Canadians don't have the wool pulled over their eyes. While the money came from donations to the Conservative Party, taxpayer money still enters the picture. As such, the opposition must hammer home the fact that the Conservatives have a million dollar fund with zero oversight that barely anyone knew existed; and that this fund is topped off by taxpayer dollars.

The Conservatives will downplay that fact, and the opposition cannot allow them to get away with it.

Many have pointed out that this fund may just be the tip of the iceberg. Since it exists in the PMO, and isn't used during elections (apparently) it doesn't exist under Elections Canada oversight. This is literally a fund that can be used at the discretion of the PMO without anyone knowing about it. And while there is something to be said for it being used for "expenses for the PM that should be covered by the party", we've already explained how this doesn't spare taxpayers completely from shouldering a bit of the financial burden.

And that brings us to another issue that has arisen in Ottawa that continues to damage what little reputation the Harper Government had left.

Two Conservative MPs have found themselves in another issue over elections expenses. Shelly Glover and James Bezan are fighting with Elections Canada over their issues receipts from the last election; with the elections watchdog saying that the two candidates incorrectly filed expenses that allowed them to say under the spending limit. 

Furthermore, House Speaker Andrew Scheer was informed of the failure of the two candidates to update their expenses after they missed a May 17th deadline. Elections Canada was seeking the barring of the two MPs from the House and their duties as a parliamentarian until the issue was resolved. 

Scheer sat on the letter, not revealing the issue to the House of Commons, and Conservative Party Lawyer and seemingly always speaking spokesman Arthur Hamilton chided Elections Canada for sending the letters in the first place. 

At this point, I don't know how much more mired the Conservative Party can become in scandals. Their seemingly never ending battles with Elections Canada; a court case which ruled beyond a shadow of a doubt that CIMS was the source of robocall targeting, though individuals involved remain unknown; and now the existence of secret funds and information being willfully withheld from the House of Commons.

What's next, will we find out that Stephen Harper does indeed eat babies? I'm pretty sure at this point even the furthest stretch of hyperbole wouldn't bat an eyelash for even the casual watcher of politics in our country.

I said it yesterday, and I will say it again, there is only one way to change the channel for the Conservatives (and even then it's a first step, not a cure) and that is a fundamental change in leadership and a distancing from being the 'Harper Conservatives'. But again, Harper is about Harper, and such a decision will never come from Harper or within the PMO.

The reaction to Brent Rathgerber's resignation from caucus has shown that even in Fortress Alberta, there are doubts about the direction the Conservative Party is spinning in. And when the fault lines are showing in the party base, one can't help but realize that the centre coalition Harper took from the Liberals is likely reeling away from the party as well.

And while I do delight in watching the Conservative Party twisting in the wind, and acknowledged yesterday that Harper staying on until the 2015 Election would be a boon to the opposition parties, one can't help but think about those who are pained to see their party at this point. Surely there must be those who want to see the path change, and whether they show up at this month's convention and force the issue remains to be seen.

But for those who do identify as Conservatives, they must realize that at this point the future of their party hinges on the next few months. This scandal is only going to get worse, if it can even get better at all, and how the rank and file members react is going to have a major bearing on the party moving forward.

With a party convention weeks away, the membership do have a chance to do the right thing (for their party, and even for the country) and tell Stephen Harper that it is time for a change. If they fail to do this, then the country will be more than happy to give Stephen and a majority of his party (ala PCs 1993) the order of the boot.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Whither the Teflon Don

For the better part of the last few months, the Harper Government has tried and failed to change the channel.

When the government prorogued Parliament in the face of a unified opposition coalition, political junkies were outraged and the public yawned. When caught outspending the national election limits through the method of funnelling money from local campaigns to the national party and back again, the public yawned further. When a cabinet minister was caught editing a signed document through the insertion of a not, changing the opinion of the document, or when another cabinet minister directed border/security funds into their riding to prepare for the G8 meeting, the public again stretched in their  BarcaLoungers and settled down for a mid-afternoon nap.

Who could forget the white wash that was the 2011 Election, where the Harper Government was found in contempt of Parliament for withholding documents pertaining to Afghan detainees and torture; but the election was fought under the guise of the rejection of the budget, which Canadians seemed to swallow en masse, and people quickly forgot about the real reason the Harper Government was brought down in the House of Commons.

For a time, it seemed as though the Harper Government was truly untouchable. For whatever reason, Canadians had turned a blind eye to the transgressions committed by their elected officials and shrugged in endless apathy when asked for their opinion. Part of this did come down to marketing; for all their faults, the Harper Conservatives were once skilled masters of messaging. 

The coalition question? Treason and undemocratic! The In-and-Out scandal? All parties do this, but here Elections Canada have some money! What Afghan detainees, our government was defeated by a rejected budget! 

Like it or not, the Conservatives seemed to be able to dress up the pig and sell it to Canadians as the greatest beauty one would ever see. Which begins to explain the Conservative arrogance that was first witnessed when the Senate expenses scandal broke. 

Harper, and numerous other cabinet members, were quick to defend Duffy and Wallin on issues of residency requirements, and often made lofty acknowledgement to the good work they had done in the Senate. Even when word broke of Nigel Wright's payment to Duffy, Harper and team were quick to commend the former PMO Chief of Staff for doing the right thing and having tremendous character. Harper even refused to hear for Wright's resignation for a few days before he finally relented and accepted it.

With another body under the Conservative bus (usually reserved for low level staffers and campaign managers), perhaps the Conservatives thought they had finally turned the corner on the issue as they had many times before. But alas, it would seem that they had not.

The simple answer for this is the easiest: it's the money.

While the Conservatives have faced issues regarding irregular spending (G8 funds, $3.1 billion "unaccounted" for, etc.) it always existed in a subjective realm where Canadians expect a bit of pork barreling. Money for projects is always misappropriated in some amount, so that sort of corruption hardly shocks Canadians when it happens; if it indeed shocks any democratic country. 

But then we got to Duffy, and we see one thing that Canadians have never abided: abuse of privilege.  Everyone knows being a Senator comes with perks, one of which is a guaranteed six-figure income and a lofty retirement package. So, to see someone with perks already above what most of us can imagine turn about and try to shovel more into their pockets is an issue that speaks to many Canadians. 

And as it appears that Pamela Wallin will create similar headaches when her audit is completed, Canadians are really starting to pay attention to these breaches of privilege; which in turn, traces back to the person responsible for those committing these breaches. 

Harper in particular as always been able to distance himself from controversy from his caucus. It's always a junior minister, or a staffer, or anyone but the Prime Minister. Furthermore, the Prime Minister never seems to know what his left hand is doing. When things go south for the government, the PM who has constantly be referred to as the most heavy handed and controlling PM in Canadian history, suddenly had no idea that this was going on.

Albert Einstein once said that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Which is another way of saying that if things are going wrong, and there's a single constant between all those things, it is the inflexibility of the single constant that is causing the same result over and over.

In this case, it is indeed the Prime Minister. 

Either Harper isn't as controlling as he's appeared since 2006, which means he really doesn't know what his ministers or his own office is doing; which in turn makes him incompetent to lead. Or, he is the controlling person we've heard about since 2006, he is aware of what's going on in is party, and is either actively involved or simply doesn't care; which makes him worse than incompetent and to borrow a phrase from dear old Steve himself, has "...lost the moral authority to govern."

The government's bag of tricks seems to be played out, as the old methods of turning the channel have failed to gain traction and the senate scandal remains at the forefront of Canadian news. It's hard for a party to defend itself, when it was elected on the message of transparency and accountability, to then find itself ensnarled in breaches of transparency and accountability. 

And that brings us to the most recent bit of breaking news: the resigning of Brent Rathgerber from the Conservative caucus on those very issues. Rathgerber's final straw seemed to be the changing of reporting public payouts of $120,000 in his private member's bill to the much more ludicrous amount over $400,000.

It becomes doubly hard for a government to defend its record and reputation when it's own members begin to call out the same charges and leave the government as a result. (Also, it's amusing to see the PMO call on Rathgerber to face a by election to retain his seat, considering they were against by elections for people like David Emerson who left the Liberals to join the Conservatives; guess you should only have a byelection called if you stop being represented by a Conservative, but it's ok if they become a conservative.)

The Conservatives have their party convention in Calgary near the end of the month, though one can hardly hope to see any real push for accountability or transparency from the lock and step members who will be in attendance. From what I can find online, Harper has not faced a leadership review at convention since 2005; in accordance with the party's constitution, a leadership review must be held at the first convention following an electoral loss, or if the leader makes known their desire to resign, OR if 50% of those in attendance at national convention vote in favour of moving towards the leadership selection process. 

While there have been many conservative ministers lining up to be the heir apparent when Harper does resign, it seems unlikely that any have been sharpening their knives ala Michael Heseltine to Margaret Thatcher. Though one does have to wonder whether the party faithful have begun to see the writing on the wall, and noticed that their Teflon Don has begun to peel. 

It seems unlikely that such an event would happen, and it would benefit opposition parties if Harper was in leader's seat in the next election, but who knows. 

What it comes down to is this: the days of Harper rubbing his hands together and magically avoiding pratfalls is over. As of this moment, the Harper ship is sinking and is taking his party's lifeboat with it. Harper's goal now isn't to fix his party's image or legacy, it's to repair his own. Taking the high road and accepting fault and resigning is tantamount to leaving the office in rags; which seems to be a path he does not want to take.

But the longer Harper stays as leader, and Prime Minister, the more damage he does to his legacy and to the Conservative brand he's spent years crafting. His party has a chance to do what he won't do, force him out and cut off the limb to "save" the body, but it seems doubtful that the grassroots would take that route. And no heir apparent will start the push if the rank and file don't seem ready to follow suit, lest they damage their own legacy and future political chances.

It doesn't matter in the long run, the damage is done and even shuffling out Harper at this point would likely do little to reinvigorate the Conservatives. Pride and vanity, two aspects once derided as a "Liberal" trait by the conservatives, have crept into the government and will help serve as part of its downfall. 

Either way, it's a lesson that all leaders of all political stripes need to learn: there comes a point to make a graceful exit, with legacy and party intact; and it's a once in a lifetime window. Miss the point and you overstay your welcome and come across as the balding man with a combover who doesn't care how ridiculous he looks, just as long as it looks like he has hair. 

At this point, Harper's gone from combover to bad toupee; the question is whether he will be the one to wake up and realize the ridiculousness of it all, or if he'll find our from the snickers behind his back.