A Chink in the Harper Narrative?

For many years Stephen Harper has carefully honed a narrative. It runs like this: “You may not like me personally, but you know in your heart that I am a good steward of the public purse, and that I am the best politician out there right now in terms of experience, ability and judgement.”

These points, and especially the last one, have helped the PM to deal with the controversies that have erupted over the years. He has also benefitted from a series of opposition leaders perceived to be extremely weak—and has contributed to that perception with attacks of unprecedented and deeply personal ruthlessness on anyone who might challenge him for the job. Meanwhile, Harper has imposed a degree of discipline on his own party never seen to date in Canadian politics, despite rhetoric when he was Opposition Leader that he would ‘open up’ Parliament and allow backbenchers to speak their minds more often.

The Duffy-Wright scandal hits home with ordinary people in a way that esoteric debates over whether the F-35 really is the best fighter, or proper Parliamentary procedure for backbencher’s questions, never can.

The resignation of Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, over his ‘gift’ of some $90,000 to repay Senator Duffy’s mis-claimed expenses has opened a simmering cauldron which could fundamentally weaken the Prime Minister by causing the Canadian public to re-assess his narrative.

The Duffy-Wright affair may be small potatoes in terms of the money involved, but it is dangerous for the Prime Minister precisely because it is so comprehensible to ordinary people. The misappropriation of hundreds of millions within the bureaucratic labyrinth is complicated. People may get angry, but they are never certain at what; the complexities of the system are such that they can never be entirely sure where the funds went or why, and these things blow over eventually if you tough it out and undermine the credibility of those alleging the wrongdoing.

On the other hand, a personal cheque for $90,000 to cover up wrongfully claimed expenses is understandable. The amount is something ordinary people can identify with.  It is about one- third more than the average family makes per year (according to 2010 statistics). It is what’s left on the mortgage. Moreover, the impropriety of the idea that a friendly senator, who has done Harper’s bidding as a fund-raiser and attack-dog since being appointed but has been caught with his hand in the public cookie jar, can just go to the PM’s chief of staff and get a cheque is perfectly clear. Even if that’s not the way it happened, that’s the way it looks.

So the usual kind of government financial scandal may smell a bit suspicious to the average person, but this one really stinks. The Duffy-Wright scandal hits home with ordinary people in a way that esoteric debates over whether the F-35 really is the best fighter, or proper Parliamentary procedure for backbencher’s questions, never can.

The past year has been hard for the PM and his narrative. The idea that the Conservatives are uniquely positioned to claim superior fiscal probity and bureaucratic efficiency has been dashed on the rocks of such things as the F-35 debacle. His mania for total control over the process has been challenged by restless back-benchers chafing at the restrictions imposed on them by threatening to re-open the toxic issue of abortion.

Through all this Harper has tried to tough it out with his usual mix of arrogance and aggression. Questions about his Government’s capability have been met with hostile counter-attacks on the questioners’ integrity and ability. Those within the Party who might challenge his complete control have been ruthlessly suppressed. A new Liberal leader has been subjected to personal attacks of a juvenile and especially nasty nature.

But it is not working so well. Questions about the Government’s fiscal stewardship will not go away. The backbenchers are not so cowed as they once were. The attacks ads on Justin Trudeau seem to have backfired, so far, at least. And now the Duffy-Wright scandal.

The next election is two years away, and that’s a long time in politics. Predictions of Harper’s inevitable demise are premature. But the PM needs to get control over the agenda if he is to restore his narrative. Otherwise, he faces the prospect that Canadians may spend the next two years focusing on the one part of that narrative that remains fully intact: that they have never really liked him very much personally.

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