Politics·Point of View

REID: Whose fault is it if no one cares?

Three simple words, repeated by observers and media, seem to encompass the smug response of Conservatives to charges of abuse of power: no one cares. Well, why not?

No one cares.

Three simple words that encompass the smug, assuming and proudly non-contrite response of Conservatives to a string of recently revealed abuses of power, the public purse and Parliament. Three simple words that are repeated by observers, media and analysts as though that justifies an end to the conversation. Three simple words that seem to pose an impenetrable shield between this government and the voter backlash that Opposition politicians keep praying will arise.

Four senior counsellors to the prime minister — including two Senators — charged with offenses so serious they could go to prison?  No one cares.

The apparent manufacture of invoices to propel their illegal scheme forward? No one cares.

Scott Reid

Scott Reid is a former senior adviser and director of communications to Prime Minister Paul Martin who appears regularly in Point of Order on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.

A minister plainly lying to the House of Commons? No one cares.

Not one but two rulings that suggest contempt of Parliament in a single day — for a total of three such rulings this year, a mark unmatched in history? No one cares.

The point could not be more clear if it were barked out in the shrill screech of Pierre Poilievre: the Harper Government has its own measure of right and wrong. Right is that which advances its competitive position. Wrong is that which offends electoral prospects.

Painfully absent is any sense that with national office comes a corresponding set of inherited obligations — to uphold a set of standards and adhere to a level of conduct that lend our federal government its moral authority to rule. Instead, integrity in the nation's highest office is reduced to a relative standard that is measured  by the likely response of target demographics and segmented profiles.

It's a sad new twist on an old epistemological query. If a law is broken (or a standard lowered, or a principle violated or a threshold crossed) and no voter vital to the Conservative cause is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Not in Stephen Harper's Ottawa, that's for certain.

But the question remains: Why don't voters care?

Well, first of all, let's not be quite so condescening. Actually, many people care. But Harper's team argues they're not the right people. Those offended by Harper's machine-like assault on the principles of honest conduct and fair play are already part of the Ottawa scene. Or worse, they're dedicated voters of the other parties.

Conservatve voters — in the main — don't seem to care even though they've supposedly rallied in the past against unaccountable government. Perhaps they're blinded by partisanship. Perhaps they're unconvinced these transgressions are significant.

Most importantly we're told, undecided and swing voters don't seem to care. At least not yet. That could certainly change with more effective communication and sharpened tactics. But so far, this critical bloc of voters seems unbothered. And therefore, Harper remains unconcerned.

But not all of it can be laid on the doorstep of the Conservative leader. In discouraging public disapproval of his conduct he has attracted allies — witting and unwitting alike.

We can begin with a Parliamentary Press Gallery that, increasingly, is dazzled by political tactics, bored by substance and disinterested in the awkward obligation of challenging authority. With too few exceptions — and one fewer with the sad passing of the Star's Jim Travers — reporters seem more interested in sounding like in-the-know party strategists than detached observers.

It is they, in particular, who tell us repeatedly that "no one cares." And all too frequently, there is little, if any, suggestion that part of the media's function is to serve as a check on abuse of authority. Put another way, if Woodward and Bernstein had followed the same method we sometimes witness in Ottawa, they would surely have shrugged off Deep Throat, explaining that no one cares about such a technical, complicated story and that, in any event, Nixon's triumph over McGovern rendered the matter moot.

Ultimately, however, it is the job of the Opposition to hold the government to account. And if no one cares, then that has to be recognized as at least a partial failure on their behalf. Too often the Liberals have made the mistake of sounding like it is they who are the victim of Harper's misconduct. From "in-and-out" to Parliamentary privileges to Oda's crayoned-in "not." 

And therein lies the problem. People don't give a tinker's damn if Harper is rotten to his political opponents. They care if he's rotten to them. And so far, the Liberals have not convincingly made the case that Harper's contempt of Parliament translates into a threat that resonates personally with the public.

If the Liberals hope to make Harper pay a price for his misbehaviour by forcing an election campaign, they have — to say the least — much labour left ahead. Standing double digits back of the Conservatives, falling behind in Ontario and floating somewhere between 23 and 26 per cent in popular support, it seems a peculiar time to call the question.  Indeed, it could well make things worse.

Because, IF Harper were to wage and win an election campaign this spring, you can be certain that he — and others — would be quick to claim that he was right all along and that no one really does care.