The beginning of the end of Harper’s iron rule

Okay, maybe this is not really the beginning of the end. I think the beginning of the end may have been last spring when some of the Conservative back-benchers had the temerity to complain publicly that they were being deprived of their right to free speech. And Brent Rathgeber, MP from Edmonton, was even braver and decided the Conservative caucus had strayed so far from the principles he thought it represented that he walked to sit on the other side of the House. In fact, my little corner of MPs from smaller parties and independents is growing steadily.

And, it is always possible, that it will not be the ‘end’ because Stephen Harper will reach down deep and find some way to reestablish his vice-like grip on power, on control of all of his caucus in the House and in the Senate. But it feels like the beginning of the end.

Stephen Harper has lost the ability to maintain plausible deniability. His days of having an endless number of deeply loyal underlings, prepped for ritual sacrifice, is over. It cannot be fun to be a Harper loyalist. If anything goes wrong, you are supposed to take the blame, leave with your reputation in tatters, while the Prime Minister makes all those sanctimonious noises about his high ethical standards. To be blunt, his habit of throwing people under the bus has become too obvious. And as Conservative Senator Hugh Segal said the other day, ‘At some point you start running out of buses and running out of people.’

The three disgraced senators had one thing in common – Stephen Harper hand-picked them. As some Conservative MPs from the back-benches grumbled to me the other day, ‘They weren’t even Conservatives.’ (A point I had missed, but one that contributes to the backbench list of grievances. After all, they got elected with a promise that Harper would not appoint senators. Instead, he has stacked the Senate.)

Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy were recruited by Harper so that they could fill the coffers of the Conservative Party at fundraising dinners where their celebrity status would sell tickets. Neither of them lived in the province of their birth; both were appointed as though they did. Brazeau was desirable as a senator so Harper could use him to lay waste to any First Nations spokesperson making his administration uncomfortable. It was Brazeau that PMO made the point person to attack Chief Teresa Spence when she was on a hunger strike. It was Brazeau who was contemptuous of her concerns. Who better than a First Nations Senator?

Back in December 2012, trouble started to brew over the claims for Duffy’s Ottawa housing allowance. Reporters wondered about Duffy’s claim that he lived in PEI. Photos appeared in the Charlottetown Guardian of Duffy’s cottage with snow piled high, no shovelled path or foot prints in sight. By February 2013, the local Guardian reported when Mike Duffy asked the provincial health authority to fast track a health card for him. Prince Edward Island is not the kind of place where such shenanigans remain anonymous.

And that was the beginning of Harper’s Duffy headache. With Duffy’s expense claims under the microscope, Pamela Wallin’s were next. And then, Brazeau’a assault charges added to the manifestly obvious point that he was not Senate material.

At first, just as he did initially for Bev Oda and Helena Guergis and so many others, Stephen Harper defended his Senate trio. He claimed he had reviewed Wallin’s expenses and there was nothing out of the ordinary. But as the mess wouldn’t go away, he started distancing himself and then denouncing them.

By May 2013, news leaked out that Duffy’s claim that he had borrowed money to pay back wrongly claimed funds was false; that he had received a personal cheque from $90,000 from the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Nigel Wright. Always claiming he had known nothing about it, the Prime Minister at first defended Wright (although such a payment to a public official is illegal), saying Wright was motivated only to save the taxpayers’ resources. Then he said Nigel Wright took full responsibility and resigned. Now he says Nigel Wright was fired.

The stories are unravelling faster than those of us who are watching closely can keep track of. Which version of the story is now being peddled? The most explosive allegations from Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau have been launched since the House returned after this fall’s prorogation.

Stephen Harper made an error, a potentially fatal error. With his party’s convention looming, he ordered his majority in the Senate to pass a rush to judgement—a summary execution— that all three Senators be suspended without pay for two years. I oppose such a move, not because I want to defend these three, but because our system is based on due process, the presumption of innocence and respect for natural justice.

The Prime Minister’s political miscalculation was that he forced their hands, and the Senators fought back, sharing details of just how deeply he, his staff and the Conservative party were part of a concerted effort to orchestrate the handling of the scandal.

As Andrew Coyne wrote following the first of Duffy’s speeches in the Senate: ‘Well, that was edifying. The Conservative government and one of its senators would appear to have spent the better part of the last year discreetly blackmailing each other. Now they are doing so openly.’

It couldn’t get more sordid.