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. 

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