A Scandal in Two Institutions: The PMO Half
Nov 22, 2013

A Scandal in Two Institutions: The PMO Half

Nigel Wright
What has become known as the Senate Scandal is really a scandal in two institutions: the Senate, of course, but also the PMO. In both institutions, the scandal is emblematic of much larger, more systemic issues plaguing these two institutions. A few hundred thousand being squirreled away for personal interest - and the subsequent attempt at cover up - is a moderately important issue, but it is these larger systemic issues that has real consequence on our political system.

The PMO half of the scandal:
The original scandal - that various Senators enriched themselves inappropriately on the public's dime - should be considered a small scandal. Surely the sums involved are orders of magnitude lower than many scandals - the Ontario Liberals' politically motivated gas plant cancellation cost a billion dollars - and indeed almost all policies implemented by government, many of which I disagree with and believe to be harmful, ring in with costs in the tens of millions to tens of billions. Further, the benefits were not in exchange for something like political favours where the consequence is changes in policy with large impacts on our society such as happens when lobbyists water down regulatory bills or bolster military procurement, etc.

Instead of being a scandal based on the scope of its consequences, the outrage is more of the deontological kind where the Senators broke a sacrosanct rule whose symbolism offends our democratic sensibilities. Even then, while appointed by Harper, these Senators are still far from the PMO and without much influence away from the fundraising circuit. The PMO could have let the issue lie, followed the Bev Oda playbook, and suffer through a not insignificant but ultimately small blip on their record.

The PMO didn't do that. Instead it transformed this small scandal - some out of line Senators enriching themselves on the side - into a full fledged cover up. Whether the seemingly dozen or so people with some level of knowledge of the deal included Harper or not - and any common sense reading of the RCMP documents would imply he did- a decision was made to risk the much bigger scandal we have now to try and minimize the smaller scandal they had on their hands. Why take that risk?

Whether or not Harper was involved in some degree in the details of the coverup himself, it is undeniable that he has been involved - indeed, it is perhaps the defining characteristic of his administration - in inculcating a culture where the PMO influences and controls everything, manages everything from policy to messaging, and that takes any blip on the radar and tries to squash it, repackage it, and sell it off to Canadians in bite sized talking points distributed far and wide. Every crisis big or small gets shuffled through a now oh-too-familiar process of PMO whitewashing.

The PMO's treatement of the Senate scandal is not some aberration. It is not a one-of. It was not a bizarre and unexplainable lapse of judgement from a rogue member of Harper's inner circle. It is entirely consistent with an office that has established a long running tradition of obsessively controlling every aspect of the message.

When Harper won his majority two years ago, I wrote that a central litmus test of his administration would surround the tightness of control he maintained over the halls of power. Should he embrace openness, transparency, and a genuine adversarial process - features of a functioning democracy too often ignored under his minority reign - then we would have a difference of opinion on policy and priorities but shared the basic values of respect for a functioning democracy.

Unfortunately, we have seen, if anything, a further tightening during his majority years than then minority rules. We have seen government branches - even down to scientists - forced to get media communications checked through the PMO. We have seen backbenchers in the Conserative caucus have their role reduced to parroting carefully prepared and distributed PMO talking points. We have seen Question Period turned into a mockery full of evasion and no attempt at intellectual honesty. We have seen extensive whipping of votes, a reticence to release information to parliament, massive bill stuffing to push through the agenda in lump sums too large to fight let alone process the details, the use of cloture on bills to end debate, defunding watchdogs, reducing the adversarial process for Supreme Court nominations, etc. etc. etc. In short, we have seen a complete lack of respect for the hallmarks of a successful democracy. All of this flows through the Prime Minister's Office, which now wields a degree of influence and control previously unseen in Canadian politics.

The need for transparency, for openness, and for embracing informed adversarial debate is critical to the development of beneficial policies that allow all Canadians - and their representatives in the Commons - to fight to improve our society. That is what has been stifled under Harper. That is this larger trend that causes the real damage, that has the real significance on the shape of our governance and society. Instead we have this closed door, centralized and enormously powerful PMO that simply enacts its agenda, enshrouded in an armor of perfected messaging that has few chinks.

The Senate Scandal provides a rare chink in that armor. The newly released RCMP documents are so fascinating in part because they give us insight into the inner machinations of a world that despite its importance is usually entirely closed off to us. It isn't a pretty sight that we get to see.

People are quite rightly outraged at the audacious violations of basic democratic norms that this scandal has shown. This scandal, however, is sadly but a symbol of a larger and more systemic problem whose consequences extend far beyond the reach of this particular scandal.

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