Senate expense scandal: The Harper brand of politics

Stephen Harper showed Canadians once again this weekend that he doesn’t flinch when challenged or alter course to avoid an obstacle. Facing a political scandal that reaches directly into his own office, Harper hit back at his critics before a receptive audience of supporters.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stuck to his message on the Senate scandal while speaking at the Conservative Convention in Calgary over the weekend. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper showed Canadians once again this weekend that he doesn’t flinch when challenged or alter course to avoid an obstacle.

Facing a political scandal that reaches directly into his own office, the prime minister hit back at his critics before a receptive audience of a few thousand party supporters. He told them exactly what he’s told his political opponents for weeks now — that the blame for the Senate expenses fiasco lies everywhere but with him.

It’s the fault of the trio of senators he appointed who misused taxpayers’ money by claiming expenses they weren’t entitled to, he said, the same senators who must now be suspended without pay.

It’s the fault of his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who deceived him.

Harper blamed Liberal senators who blocked every effort he’s made to reform the upper chamber, as well as the courts that, apparently, haven’t already answered yes to the government’s reference questions on whether Ottawa has the power to change the Senate or abolish it.

“So friends,” the prime minister thundered during his speech at the Conservative Party convention in Calgary. “It’s time for the Senate to reform itself.”

Limited options

What was missing in that sentence was the, "Or else!” And for Harper, that’s the itch he can’t scratch as he returns to Ottawa for what will surely be another difficult week in the Commons.

Sen. Patrick Brazeau, (left to right) Sen. Pamela Wallin and Sen. Mike Duffy are seen in this combination of three file photos. The Conservative drive to suspend the three senators without pay is sputtering amid an apparent difference of opinion between the prime minister and his leader in the Senate. (The Canadian Press)

Short of expelling Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau from the Senate, there’s not much else the prime minister can do to bury the Senate as an issue.

The RCMP continue to investigate, and Harper’s reference to the Supreme Court of Canada will be heard later this month but a decision is unlikely before next spring.

It’s led some cabinet ministers to openly float the idea of a national referendum to ask Canadians if the Senate should be abolished. Maxime Bernier and others believe Canadians would say yes, forcing provincial governments to play along.

But even that plan is out of the hands of the government.

A referendum question would first have to be approved by the Commons and the Senate, and the view inside the prime minister’s office is that the likelihood of senators saying yes to a question that would put them out of work is, well, like convincing NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to shave off his beard.

So Harper is blocked by a criminal investigation that is still under way, and by senators who seem unwilling in advance of an expected vote this Tuesday to even go along with his demands to strip Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau of their livelihoods.

That might explain the defiant tone Harper struck in Calgary in the dozen or so paragraphs he devoted to the Senate, and why so much of the focus was on promoting the government’s record and the plans outlined in last month’s throne speech that went all but unnoticed in the Senate frenzy.

Sticking to his record

Harper ran through a list of accomplishments, proclaiming each policies the Conservatives — alone — support: lowering taxes, scrapping the long-gun registry and the Canadian Wheat Board, longer prison sentences for violent criminals and a child care system that recognizes two people named Mom and Dad as the real experts.

All of it done, Harper said, over the objections of the Liberals and New Democrats. All of it accomplished without bowing to academics, bureaucrats and lobbyists.

It was a speech tailored to party supporters who, like Harper, still see themselves as political outsiders even as the Conservatives approach eight years in power.

“We didn’t go to Ottawa to join private clubs or become part of some elite,’’ Harper said. ‘’That’s not who you are. It’s not who we are. We are in Ottawa only so the Government of Canada can serve you.’’

But that service does not include shedding any more light on the Senate scandal, or why the prime minister’s own answers about who knew what, and when, has changed so many times. It did not include sharing any blame or accepting responsibility.

There is a danger in being so unflinching.

The latest Nanos Research poll released by CBC News suggests many Canadians are dissatisfied with the prime minister’s explanations. More than half of respondents question his credibility. The poll also suggested Canadians consider Harper’s judgment in the handling of the Senate scandal more important than his handling of the economy — a reversal of the findings reported in a Nanos poll taken in June.

In other words, if this trend continues the Conservative brand could be under threat. And the most important feature of that brand is Stephen Harper — the architect of three straight election wins and the first Conservative majority in more than two decades.

One is tied to the other. And if what he said in Calgary is any indication, Harper’s strategy in the weeks ahead is to stick doggedly to his message, reassuring Canadians he will continue doing more of the same: focusing on the economy, negotiating trade deals, protecting families and balancing the books.

Harper believes the Conservative brand is resilient, while the Senate scandal promoted by his political opponents will prove merely a passing fad.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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