observations and opinion
Motivational speakers, teachers, CEOs and other frequenters of microphones, along with self-help and career advice authors, all tell us to do one thing:learn from our mistakes.
It sounds good in theory but seems beyond our grasp, much of the time, to drag a lesson from the wreckage of whatever we’ve just crashed. That may be because the traits which made the mistake possible are so ingrained and so dominant that they blind us to the truth. I suspect that is the case with Canada’s suddenly, and unnecessarily, embattled Prime Minister.
Let us begin by re-stating the facts as we know them today: the most senior staff of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), along with Conservative Senate leadership and Conservative Party leaders, were aware of and indeed many were involved in, a concerted effort to conceal and/or pay for the expense claims of a Conservative Senator, the flamboyant ex-broadcaster Mike Duffy. Duffy, arguing that he had incurred much expense campaigning for the Party and crying poor, simply refused to pay back the money he had hoovered out of the taxpayers’ pockets for living expenses he was not, allegedly, supposed to claim. The PMO, Senators and Tory insiders were so worried about this becoming public that they cooked up at least two schemes to pay off Duffy’s debt.
In that basic tale, there is a whole of lot of “so what-ed-ness” – so what if Duffy had his expenses paid by someone else? So what if the PM’s Chief of Staff cut a $90,000 personal check to the Treasury when the Party would not? So what? Yes it is embarrassing that the Tories’ star Senator turned out to be so, um, entitled but so what? Yes it is weird that anyone would pay his debts, but so what? It is all pretty small-beer in the great sum of things.
Yet from this feeble heap of straw and mud, the Conservatives have managed to wall themselves into a corner, with a display of bad judgment, ineptitude and (possibly) dishonesty, that corrodes right through their vaunted reputation for competence and cunning. This is as incompetent and un-cunning (a word that should be a word, if it isn’t) as anything we’ve seen a governing party cough up in a long, long time. If only because it was so damned unnecessary.
But here we are and Prime Minister Harper faces the kind of questions no office holder wants to hear: (1) what did he know? (2) when did he know it? (3) and if he didn’t know it, why the hell not?
The Prime Minister has repeatedly denied knowledge of any plans, within his own party leadership and even within his own office, to pay Duffy’s expenses bill. This position is becoming a little problematic with the release of Nigel Wright’s email which told people that the deal was “a go” with the PM, but so far Mr. Harper and his remaining spokesmen have opted to chew on Wright’s carcass and flail it about dramatically, in a show of non-culpability. Suffice it to say, that if another crumb of hard evidence puts this plot in Mr. Harper’s lap, it will demonstrate conclusively that the Prime Minister has lied to the public and to the House of Commons. Even his own Stepford Wife cabinet and caucus members would be riled by that.
But despite the smoke rising up from Harper on this, I’m not sure there’s a fire. Foolishly or naively, perhaps, I subscribe to the view that the Prime Minister is nothing if not an honest man; less naively, I believe him to be genuinely smart and it is very, very hard to impute this Three Stooges comedy to someone so clever as Harper. And if I am right about that (which I hope I am, if only to not be proven a total dope), then the Prime Minister and his Office have bigger problems than if I am wrong.
What kind of boss is it, I wonder, who can inspire such gut-freezing fear that his best and brightest would (1) concoct such a stupid scheme and then (2) keep it from the PM all the while (3) telling those concerned that the PM was, in fact, wholly in favour of it? Let me speculate about what kind of boss that would be:
You, no doubt, are occasionally obstinate yourself. You might believe that yoga pants look good on you from behind, and so persist in yanking the things up over your thighs and letting the universe see your booty. You might be right, but you might be wrong. If it’s about yoga pants, okay; you’re entitled. But when you are incessantly obstinate, unbendably rigid, frighteningly intolerant and maybe even something of a bully, you will eventually be wrong. And if it’s about the future of your Party and Government and the possible bribing of a parliamentarian, well gee, it’s not so okay.
What’s most worrisome about the whole Duffygate Expensesthing is that this version of events: everyone was scared to death of the PM so didn’t tell him but instead went rogue and hoped it would be okay cause otherwise wholly crap he’ll be pissed at us – that version, is today the best the Prime Minister can really hope for among the competing theories of what happened here. That’s because the other version is the Prime Minister is a liar. Um, no thanks.
Which takes us back to all that expensive management consultant advice about learning from our mistakes. In this case, the Prime Minister can only hope for us to believe that his Office colluded to do something possibly illegal and definitely stupid, contrary to his instructions, because they were trying to protect the Party. Mistake. Okay, if that’s true: what lessons can you take from this experience, Steve?
The main lesson is one that the rest of us can see plain as day, but the Prime Minister apparently cannot: his pathological control of everything, rooted in his slightly elevated level of self-esteem and concomitant disdain for others (within his own Party) has in fact resulted in a total effing loss of control of everything. But the PM is blind to this. He is the staggering man with booze on his breath, who not only denies drinking, doesn’t believe he has been drinking. He is going to bull his way through this debacle because that’s what he does and, weirdly, he may be the last Conservative in the country to figure out the problem. If he ever figures it out.
All of this is a pity for Conservatives. The Prime Minister has engineered a political coalition (Canada minus Quebec and Toronto) which promises a long, safe and dry run in power. He has very substantially demolished the Liberal Party and, despite the Mop Top glow of the new LPC leader, that organization is still miles away from being taken seriously as a government. You don’t have to be a fan of the government’s policies (I’m not, particularly) to recognize their political achievements. All of which can be attributed to the focus and discipline of the Prime Minister. To a point.
If the Prime Minister is telling the truth about his knowledge of the Duffy affair, then some months ago he was confronted with the shocking truth that, despite all his best efforts, the people he valued and trusted the most had (a) been really stupid and (b) lied to him about it. Imagine if then, intead of going to the mattresses, the PM had gone for a canoe ride, or whatever he does to relax (listen to Beatles albums, I think it is) and asked himself, “how did I get here?” And imagine if he had answered the question by saying, “well, whatever happened here, it is ultimately my fault. I have to change.”
At that stage in proceedings – and the moment was when he appeared in public after the Conservative caucus meeting – the PM could have done himself and the body political no end of good, by just admitting that things had gone wrong and he was going to figure out how he – not just other people – had made that happen. That was his moment to be real, to be self-aware, to be humble. At that moment Stephen Harper could have transcended expectations, but only if he transcended himself. And in the process, he could have done something truly great, not just politically savvy, but genuinely great for public confidence in politics.
But he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he’s one of those people who just can’t learn from his own mistakes. To watch it was awful, even for those who devoutly wish him out of office. His stumbling tree-like performance that day (it reminded me of nothing so much as the Soviet Politburo dudes who held a press conference after trying to depose Gorbachev) corroborated every lurking suspicion about the Prime Minister’s mindset and set in motion events which inevitably will mean disgrace, or which should mean disgrace.
That was the Missed Opportunity. In the history of modern Conservative Party politics, I think it will be that moment, not the hammy Mike Duffy testimony or the drip-drip-drip of emails out of the RCMP file, or whatever pops up next, where things went finally, fatally wrong for Harper’s Conservatives. The public may not see it, or enough may not care. Mr. Harper might even divide-and-conquer his way back to re-election two years from now. But that won’t matter a damn, because that afternoon greatness slipped away from Stephen Harper – or more accurately, he shoved it down the staircase.