Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Senate Scandal Part I

The current scandal in the Canadian Senate is interesting from a variety of perspectives. A new poll, for instance, suggests that Canadians find this scandal rather serious, more serious perhaps than the sponsorship scandal that helped bring down the federal Liberal Party and helped Stephen Harper and his revamped Conservative Party to power. You can find the news story here:

Canadians Rank Senate Expense Scandal

What I find interesting about this scandal is a number of things. I'll comment on only one here: differing styles of political leadership. Scandals put political parties on the defensive and, when these happen, they employ a standard number of strategies. For instance, they try to deflect attention by pointing to public policy issues on which they think they have credibility (witness the sudden discovery that Canada has more money than previously announced.) Indeed, according to a Vancouver Sun story, the federal Finance Minister predicts that Canada will be out of the red much sooner than expected. Through the first days last week, for instance, Conservatives routinely said that they wanted to focus on the economy, an public policy area where they think  their credibility is high an that of the opposition parties low. Second, they will try to slag the opposition by suggesting that they, too, have done dishonest things. Witness Harper's attack on Mulcair today. Now, this does not indicate that your party has been pure as the driven snow but it raises (or, hopefully raises) suspicious about the other party. Third, they try to "we did the right thing" approach. Paul Martin tried this with the sponsorship scandal. The current en vogue version is "I, the PM, did not know but as soon as I found out I acted to set things right. People in my party may be dishonest but I am not and I will sack those who are." This is Harper's current line du jour, a variant of this is "this is an isolated problem," which Harper used all summer.

What differentiates Harper, however, from previous Canadian PM's is that he's introduced a relatively new innovation to the scandal managing playbook: throw everyone and anyone in your own party remotely associated with this scandal under the bus as quickly as you can. This is the "it was an isolated incident; I have fixed the problem as soon as I discovered it" variant but a particularly nasty one. Duffy was the first to go; Wallin second; Brazzeau third; and now Wright.

Now, I should say I know none of these people and I am not suggesting one way or the other that they are honest or dishonest. I do think Wallin is right on one point: due process is probably something that should be deployed when deciding whether or not to penalize someone (it really does make a difference as to whether this was, say as an example, intentional theft or an accident; intentions count). But, I actually doubt any of these people would even bother to talk to me. So, I am not trying to defend them but point to differing leadership styles.

Compare the way other PMs responded to scandal. Martin with his "Mad as Hell" tour after the sponsorship scandal broke might look like a comparative case but its not (with the exception of Alfonso Gagliano, the ambassador to Denmark). Martin, for all his faults, let the judiciary and the inquiry do its job. He may have hated some of the people in his caucus, but he did not throw them under the bus. Other PMs certainly did not respond in this way. Chretien was shockingly loyal to minister involved in scandals (witness Jane Stewart and Gagliano). Chretien remained defensive and defiant in front of the commission and, to the best of my knowledge, never conceded that there was a scandal. Brian Mulroney, a ghost from the past, may have pressured ministers caught in scandals to retire, but publicly he stood by them.

Harper is not dealing with minister but I can't see either Chretien or Mulroney publicly saying that members of their own caucus or their close advisers were, in effect, dishonest to the point that they should be canned.

What does this tell us. Does it tell us something about the seriousness of the scandal (despite the news story cited above, I doubt it). We are dealing with what is, in government terms, a small amount of money and the next election is, at best, two -- but potentially three - years away (ignore the election law; Harper does). Does it tell us something about the views of the "Conservative base." I doubt it. Where else is that base going to go? And, that base can be satisfied in other ways (some tough talk on "moral issues", for instance, and a few jibes at the "socialistic welfare state" and they will be happy).

Instead, one of the things that I think is important is that it shows us that Harper's leadership style is very different from Chretien or Mulroney's. Perhaps this is because Chretien and Mulroney realized that they were leading brokerage parties and that loyalty on the part of party members was needed to avoid further conflicts, whereas Harper is more ideological and believes that ideology is more important than either Chretien or Mulroney. That is a guess but it might be something to investigate. I think, more than anything else, it points to a different way of leading into and of itself. Chretien and Mulroney expected loyalty (they did not always get it) and were, in return, remarkably -- at times to extreme lengths -- loyal themselves. Harper expects obedience and the two are not the same thing. Ultimately, this scandal may prove more difficult for Harper to escape for precisely that reason. What he's shown is that he will not "dance with the one who brought him," as Mulroney used to like say, if he thinks that dance will hurt his chance of dancing with someone who thinks is better.
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