ALSO: Duffygate and the things it distracted from; the Liberals struggle to stay relevant; campaign coverage is increasingly a story that’s being covered
For months, this week has been circled in red on the calendars of Cdnpoli nerds across the country. Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s one-time chief of staff, was scheduled to testify this week in the ongoing Mike Duffy trial about the $90 000 personal cheque he wrote the then-senator in an effort to make the rapidly metastasizing scandal surrounding Duffy’s residency expenses go away. The scheme backfired spectacularly, leading to Wright’s resignation from the PMO. Ultimately, Duffy was charged with bribery for accepting the cheque, although Wright, oddly enough, was never charged with anything for writing the cheque.
And, as expected, the testimony was contentious and scandal-ridden. Stretching over several days, and set to continue tomorrow, the Wright testimony has been a centrepiece of the still-young campaign, with Duffy’s legal team seeking to demonstrate that the Prime Minister’s Office sought to buy Duffy’s cooperation in their messaging war and attempted to deceive the Canadian people about the source of the funds Duffy paid back to the government.
But surprisingly, the real story of the week, at least from where I was sitting, was the increasingly visible internal struggle in the NDP.
Long-time NDP leftist stalwarts have been distressed by the rightward drift of the party over recent years – look at, for instance, the open letter from 34 prominent NDP members to Andrea Horwath in the midst of last year’s Ontario election campaign accusing the party leader of abandoning its base and running to the right of the Liberals in an ill-conceived attempt to win over Conservative voters. Up until this week, the federal NDP had been able to keep a tight lid on internal dissent over its increasingly neoliberal policies, but attacks against the party from within shot to prominence in recent days.
It began with candidate Linda McQuaig’s comments last week that much of the “oilsands oil” will probably have to be left in the ground – a position which is held by most prominent climate scientists and which, taken literally, is hardly controversial, given the vastness of Alberta’s reserves. The attacks on McQuaig and the NDP from oil industry lackeys was fast and furious, and Thomas Mulcair very quickly and publicly caved in, proclaiming that the NDP was committed to bringing tar sands oil to market. “We’re in favour of creating markets for our natural resources, we’re in favour of developing them, but that has to be done sustainably,” Mulcair insisted, a litany he would find himself repeating all week.
For instance, when he launched his campaign autobiography (which he apparently wrote on his BlackBerry, amazingly) in Toronto on Monday, the book-signing was interrupted by anti-pipeline activists who briefly shut the event down before they were escorted out. Speaking to reporters about the incident, Mulcair had this to say:
“Well, it is possible by doing what we’ve been saying for some time: We have to put in place a credible, thorough environmental assessment process that includes Canada’s obligation to reduce greenhouse gasses and of course therefore deal with the very real problem of global warming,” Mulcair said.
“Mr. Harper thought he was going to be helping these oil companies by gutting the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Fisheries Act. He thought he was helping them. But in fact, as we all know, not one of those projects has gotten off the drawing board.
“So what we propose to do is to put in place a credible, thorough system of environmental assessment that includes greenhouse gases and Canada’s international obligations,” Mulcair said.
Read that quote again, keeping in mind this context from last year:
The federal NDP leader also said pipelines to carry oil from the West to the East should be a priority because they would build energy security, get higher prices for Canadian oil, and create jobs…
“The NDP will be a partner with the development of energy resources,” if it forms a government in 2015, Mr. Mulcair told a luncheon organized by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by oil sands producer Suncor Energy Inc. and pipeline company Enbridge Inc.
“We will be there with you,” he said, while also inviting the sector to work harder to earn its “social licence” to operate, have meaningful consultations with First Nations, and take its environmental responsibilities more seriously. [my bold]
His phrasing seems to be directed at oil companies more than anybody. Look, he’s saying, Harper hasn’t gotten it done for you – but the NDP will be able to! We’ve all seen, to the detriment of our environment, how easy it is to set up a regulatory apparatus which favours certain outcomes, and that seems to be what Mulcair is indicating he’ll do – establish a “credible” process of approval which will give pipeline projects an aura of trustworthiness.
Obviously, not everybody in the NDP is happy about this. My MPP, Cheri DiNovo, was one such disgruntled Dipper, and she made her opposition known in the best passive-aggressive manner yet devised by humanity:
— Cheri DiNovo (@CheriDiNovo) August 11, 2015
Not a word about Mulcair or the NDP’s position – in fact, the graphic explicitly attacks Justin Trudeau – and yet DiNovo exhorts McQuaig to “keep speaking truth to power”. Hmm. This incident seemed to be the tipping point for a lot of party notables. As the McQuaig story raged, Gerald Caplan, the NDP’s former national director, penned a self-righteously angry op-ed in the Globe and Mail demanding that the NDP show more courage and get in touch with its noble tradition of taking principled stands by speaking out on Israeli war crimes. Just days later, the long-festering internal party conflict over Israeli-Palestinian issues erupted yet again, as the NDP gave a Nova Scotia candidate a quit-or-we’ll-fire-you ultimatum after Facebook comments from the candidate which made reference to Israel’s war crimes emerged:
[T]he federal team is distancing itself from the now-former candidate, perhaps suggesting it played a hand in his sudden exit. “Our position on the conflict in the middle east is clear, as Tom Mulcair expressed clearly in the debate. Mr. Wheeldon’s comments are not in line with that policy and he is no longer our candidate. We were made aware of some information that had not previously been disclosed. When we approached Mr. Wheeldon with this information he submitted his resignation,” Senior Campaign Advisor Brad Lavigne said in a statement.
After this, former NDP MP Jim Manly was the next to pile on. Manly’s son was rejected by the party in the nomination contest for Nanaimo-Ladysmith due to his position on Israel as well, and Manly, who was once arrested by the IDF while aboard a ship attempting to break the illegal blockade of Gaza, was unsparing in his criticism. He singled out the party’s position on pipelines and tar sands as being especially problematic:
The former MP suggested that Mulcair is facing a “lot of pressure” from both the oil industry and organized labour, hence his malleable position on Kinder Morgan. “And certainly now from the Alberta government of Rachel Notley,” he added. “But given the situation of climate, the situation that our grandchildren are going to be facing, you know,” Manly also said, “we cannot keep on releasing any more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. We have to start cutting back seriously. And I don’t see the NDP has a policy that would lead to that.”
These criticisms of the party have been batted around for years – two years ago, Yves Engler convincingly skewered the NDP for its rightward movements on economic and trade policy by suggesting that the “n” in NDP now stands for “neoliberal” – but for signs of this internal conflict to emerge in the midst of a heated campaign doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s leadership. Good on the rank-and-file and the principled lefties, though – better to lose with your principles than to lose your principles, I say. Regardless, as the campaign drags on and long-time Dippers become more aware that a Mulcair government would in many important respects be essentially a continuation of the Harper years, expect to see this debate rage more openly.
The Duffy Distractions Before we turn to the Duffy trial proper, I want to look at the series of distractions, misdirections, and prestidigitations attempted by the HarperCons this week. They knew just as well as anybody that Nigel Wright’s testimony would lead to some hard questions and some negative coverage this week, and they’ve had months to prepare their strategy to mitigate the media firestorm. The results were a little underwhelming, to be honest – although perhaps the master strategists in the Conservative war room are counting on people’s attention being distracted during the summertime. Regardless, they managed to string together a series of headline-grabbing policy announcements and well-worded attacks on rivals which were just barely notable enough to merit headlines. This is the consequence of the endless news cycle – we can only focus on Duffy for so long before we need to talk about something else. And Harper gave them something else to talk about. Last weekend, he put forth a constitutionally dubious and short-on-details plan to ban travel to so-called “terrorist hotspots”. Justin Trudeau called it “nothing but posturing“, which is hard to square with iPolitics’ article “Diaspora groups anxious about Harper’s proposed travel ban.”
Farah Aw-Osman, executive director of Canadian Friends of Somalians, said he’s concerned about the lack of details in the proposal, which raises questions about the scope of the proposed ban. “Not only us, but so many Muslim communities are very concerned and we want to find out more,” he said.
Obviously it’s a race-baiting policy, but opposition pols were reluctant to come right out and say so. It also fits a long-standing pattern of slowly stripping away civil liberties and basic rights. The Lapine nailed it in their satirical take on the announcement:
In a follow-up to Sunday’s announcement that Stephen Harper would ban travel to some global conflict zones, the Conservative Party leader today identified 954 Canadian voting stations as “places where terrorists will be bloody everywhere.” “Let’s be clear. You should be terrified. Voting stations are terrifyingly terrifying,” said Harper flanked by rows and rows of Canadian flags… In response to Harper’s announcement, Justin Trudeau told the Ottawa Citizen that the Liberal Party would “strike a balanced approach” and committed to re-examine which polling stations and demographics should be blocked if he were to form government.
Seriously. Too good. Policy announcements with racist undertones apparently tested well in focus groups, because on the first day of the Duffy trial, Harper blamed shady foreign investors for driving up the price of real estate in Vancouver, and pledged half a million dollars to finding out just how many foreigners are buying property each year.
Harper’s focus on the foreignness of real estate speculators may also raise eyebrows when the money believed to be inflating the Vancouver housing market could be coming from anywhere, including the rest of Canada. Some have argued that placing the blame for rising prices speculatively on foreigners has racial overtones that unfairly single out Chinese immigrants, many of whom are in fact long-time permanent residents here…
Amazingly, at that exact same campaign stop, right after he talked about how the price of housing had been driven up, he announced a tax break which would allow first-time homebuyers to draw more money out of their RRSPs to put towards the purchase of a house – and without a hint in his voice that he, a trained economist, noticed the profound disconnect between the two funding promises. That same day, he made a laughable speech on marijuana, taking a number of (pardon the pun) pot shots at Justin Trudeau:
Speaking at an election campaign event in Markham on Tuesday, Harper said both his party and a majority of Canadians oppose the “full legalization” of marijuana.
“When you go down that route, marijuana becomes more readily available to children, more people become addicted to it and the health outcomes become worse,” Harper told reporters…
On Tuesday, Harper claimed that Trudeau’s position would necessarily mean marijuana would be sold in stores like alcohol or tobacco.
“It is a dangerously misguided idea that would only serve to make drugs more accessible to our children,” he said. “Unlike the other parties, we will not introduce misguided and reckless policies that would downplay, condone or normalize the use of illegal drugs.”
Tl;dr: shorter Harper:
— Stephen Harper (@pmharper) August 11, 2015
Of course, all of this goes against literally everything that we know about decriminalizing or legalizing drugs. And a string of fatal overdoses in Vancouver last week shows the literally deadly consequences of this completely backwards and ill-informed war on drugs. Sadly, neither of Harper’s main opponents used the occasion to talk about the issue of safe injection sites or the public policy research into legalization.
In fact, other than his nakedly fear-mongering terror travel ban, Harper pretty much got a pass on all of his distraction-announcements by Trudeau and Mulcair, who were busy sniping at each other or talking about the Duffy scandal.
Which is pretty much a win for Team Harper – they got to make a bunch of stupid statements without getting called out on them, and threw some red meat to their base with Islamophobic and anti-Chinese policy announcements.
Speaking of the Duffy scandal…
Really, the Duffy scandal is a marvel. Of all the illegal, unethical, unconstitutional, proto-fascist nonsense that Harper & Co have pulled over the last nine years, that the biggest scandal they would run into would be over a measly $90 000 cheque – which went to pay back the government for dubious expenses – is mind-boggling. Not that it isn’t a scandal, to be sure – just that there have been so many bigger ones. Consider this story, which UK daily The Guardian broke this week, on documents obtained by Greenpeace which show that the government secretly spent $30 million on promoting the tar sands in Canada and abroad:
According to the government documents, other outreach activities included research to support Canadian lobbying against a European environmental measure that would have hampered tar sands exports. Canada has succeeded indelaying the measure – the EU Fuel Quality Directive – several times.
The government also partnered with the International Energy Agency to “advance knowledge” about unconventional fuels like fracked shale gas, which several Canadian provinces have passed moratoriums against…
“The Harper government gutted environmental laws and destroyed public faith in the regulatory system in order to fast-track pipelines, then wasted $30 million of public money on a public relations campaign doomed to fail. They seem to think that if they spend enough money, they can fool all of the people all of the time but that kind of arrogance is a risky re-election strategy at a time of low oil prices and rising concern over climate change,” said Keith Stewart, a Greenpeace climate analyst, who obtained the documents through FOI.
This story broke on Tuesday and then sunk without a ripple below the relentless tide of the news cycle, never to be seen again. Everybody was too excited about Duffy.
And for politics nerds (like yrs truly) it was an exciting week. For those who have been following this story closely, I highly recommend Kady O’Malley’s liveblog at the Ottawa Citizen – she’s pretty much the rock star of Canadian political journalism at the moment, and she’s rocking this story hard.
For the quote-unquote low information voters, however, the minutiae of the trial are pretty, well, boring. There’s no smoking gun, no direct connection to the Prime Minister, just endless discussion of emails and media messaging tactics and consultation with lawyers at Conservative Party headquarters and debates about the constitution.
Rick Mercer did a great job back in 2013 of encapsulating the ridiculousness of the situation, if you’re new to the story:
But even still, a lot of folks are ultimately left with the sense of well, so what?
In terms of details: it became clear this week that several senior staffers in the PMO knew that Wright was the source of the funds for Duffy’s repayment, including Ray Novak, Harper’s current chief of staff. This led to some awkward grilling of the Prime Minister:
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said subordinates, including his current chief of staff Ray Novak, should not be held responsible for what their superiors were doing to manage the political crisis involving the expenses of Sen. Mike Duffy.
Novak, a long-time aide to Harper, was promoted to chief of staff after Nigel Wright left the post as part of the fallout of Canadians learning he had personally given Duffy the $90,172 needed to reimburse inappropriate living expenses in 2013.
“These are the actions of Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright. You hold people responsible for their own actions. You certainly don’t hold subordinates responsible for the actions of their superiors. These are the two people responsible and they are being held accountable,” Harper said during a campaign stop in Hay River, N.W.T., Friday…
Harper was also reminded by a reporter that even after the truth of Wright’s involvement had been made public, cabinet ministers continued to say in the House of Commons that Wright was the only person who knew and there were no documents regarding the transaction.
“Why did you allow that to continue when you knew that it wasn’t the truth (and) that there were more people involved?” Harper was asked.
“We were all told that Mr. Duffy had repaid his expenses. Mr. Duffy said that on national television, he had borrowed money from the bank, etc.” Harper said, referring to a statement Duffy had provided to CTV News as it was investigating the story that it was in fact Wright who had paid.
“That is what we all understood to be the truth. That is what the vast majority of, that’s not only what the entire caucus thought, and I thought, that’s what the vast majority of our staff also believed was the case,” Harper said.
Which, pretty much, is a lie – but a lie that’s complicated to explain and understand, and which therefore isn’t ultimately going to resonate with a lot of voters. One wonders how the hell Watergate ever got any legs.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the trial is Wright himself – a preposterously wealthy man who took a leave of absence from private equity giant Onex Corp to be the chief of staff to the Prime Minister, a man who literally said that writing a $90 000 cheque wouldn’t have an impact on his standard of living and that he often covered large office costs out of pocket because the money was trivial to him. What was he getting out of doing this job?
Wright tried to portray the $90 000 as an act of charity – a claim that’s hard to square with the hardline tactics he used on Duffy and the demands for absolute fealty to the party’s messaging on the issue. Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, expertly demolished the assertion:
Bayne was particularly scornful of Wright’s now notorious biblical justification for maintaining secrecy about the whole affair.
Wright had cited the New Testament, Matthew 6:3 to be precise, which states “when you give to the needy do not announce it with trumpets, and do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
Bayne asked Wright if he could use that self-serving biblical citation to rationalize keeping payment of Duffy’s expenses by the Conservative Fund a secret. Getting the Fund to do the job had been the plan until its Chairman, Senator Irving Gerstein, found out the sum was $90,000 not $32,000 as he had been told originally.
Gerstein said $90,000 was too rich for his blood.
But when the idea of the Fund paying Duffy’s expenses was still alive Wright had agreed to keep it secret.
There is, apparently, no biblical verse to justify that.
And Bayne did not even go into the absurdity of calling Wright’s politically expedient gift to a well-heeled senator and former prominent broadcaster “giving to the needy.”
Some folks, it seems, have the oddest idea of what constitutes charity.
The trial continues, and won’t reach a verdict until after the election. This is the high point of drama as far as the PMO is concerned, and so far it looks as though Harper will weather the storm without having to deal with any excessively damaging claims.
My take is that the opposition parties would be mistaken to talk too much about this one, especially as the campaign drags on, simply because nobody’s going to get too fired up on the question of what the PM’s now-chief of staff knew and when. If Harper could be more directly implicated, then by all means hammer away at it, but this is exactly the kind of inside baseball that turns off the low-info voters that all the parties are so aggressively courting.
Which is a shame, because it’s a damned interesting story.
Liberals up in the polls, but struggling to be heard
Trudeau got a poll bounce in the aftermath of the Maclean’s debate earlier this month, with the race tightening especially here in Ontario. That was, however, about the only good news for the Libs this week.
I’ve avoided talking too much about the Liberals in this space, mostly because I find it hard to believe that anybody takes them seriously enough to potentially vote for them, but apparently there’s still a lot of folks out there giving them a chance, so I’ll give ’em a few inches of column space.
Back in April, I did a round-up of the way-too-numerous examples of party interference in local nomination contests. Trudeau of course promised to much fanfare that the Liberals would have open nominations in every riding in the country, and then proceeded to fix things up in literally dozens of ridings for his preferred candidates. That trend continued this week in one Vancouver riding, which now finds itself with a candidate but no riding association executive – the whole board quit en masse to protest the nomination procedure:
Members of the riding association executive have stepped down in protest over Joe Peschisolido’s acclamation Tuesday night because the party had shut out former Liberal candidate Wendy Yuan from seeking the nomination.
Yuan, an unsuccessful Liberal candidate in 2008 and 2011, had not made it through the candidate-screening process, and accused the party of putting its thumb on the scale in favour of Joe Peschisolido, a former Liberal MP for Richmond. She earlier produced an affidavit claiming former Cabinet Minister Raymond Chan intended to make sure she couldn’t run — Chan later denied that and the party says she was rejected over the fact-checking of her resumé.
And of interest, to me at least:
Peschisolido has been involved in politics for a long time — he ran several times in the 1990s for the Reform Party in Southern Ontario, and was originally elected as a Canadian Alliance MP for Richmond in 2000, only to later cross the floor to the Liberals.
Trudeau of course didn’t deign to comment on the scandal.
Ridicule erupted on Thursday after a Trudeau speech in Regina. I’ll let the twitpic do the talking:
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau became the butt of a few internet jokes after saying he wants to grow Canada’s economy “from the heart outwards” during a campaign event in Regina on Wednesday…
Yeah, pretty much. The CBC has a great roundup of the Twitter ridicule.
Lastly, even when Trudeau tries to make waves with a big policy announcement, Bill C-51 keeps coming back to haunt him:
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau went on the attack Thursday, blaming Stephen Harper for not doing enough to close the gap in quality of life between First Nations people and other Canadians.
“Mr. Harper has done little to improve things,” Trudeau said during a campaign stop in Saskatoon. “No nation-to-nation dialogue, no respect for rights or for treaties, no regard for First Nations control of First Nations education, no delivery on desperately needed investments. Just a unilateral, top-down approach from Ottawa.”
In his first major promise of the election campaign, Trudeau said that a Liberal government would invest a total of $2.6 billion in First Nations education over four years and $500 million over three years in infrastructure for First Nations schools…
Trudeau was campaigning in the riding of Saskatoon West, where Lisa Abbott, a First Nations lawyer, is seeking to win the federal seat.
The Liberal leader has been criticized by some First Nations for his party’s support of the government’s Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-51.
Asked about it for a second-day in a row, Trudeau defended his support for C-51 and reiterated his position that a Liberal government would repeal the sections of the law that are of most concern to First Nations.
You got that? He supports it and he’ll repeal the parts of it that his audience dislikes the most. That’s a real professional politician right there.
Even those campaigning on his behalf were kind of ashamed to be associated with him – like New Brunswick premier Brian Gallant, who attacked Mulcair’s position on Energy East while carefully distancing himself from Trudeau:
Mr. Gallant characterized Mr. Mulcair’s position on the proposed pipeline as “very disappointing” and accused him of “wavering” on his support for it. He suggested, too, that Mr. Mulcair’s position varies depending on where he is in the country…
Mr. Gallant is a close friend of New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc, who is a long-time friend and adviser of Mr. Trudeau. His provincial riding is in Mr. LeBlanc’s federal riding of Beauséjour. Mr. LeBlanc was co-chair of Mr. Gallant’s successful provincial bid last year. Mr. Trudeau campaigned with Mr. Gallant, who won a majority government. In addition, Mr. Trudeau announced his leadership bid in Mr. LeBlanc’s riding.
The Premier, however, denied the Trudeau Liberals had put him up to his comments. He said he will be casting a vote for Mr. Trudeau in the federal election but will not be campaigning with him or any other leader.
At least Trudeau isn’t as bad off as poor Gilles Duceppe, who this week was overheard insisting that the Bloc Quebecois is still relevant. If you’ve gotta say it, Gilles…
Coverage of the coverage of the campaign also picked up this week, as at least two controversies over Conservative party restrictions on their events broke out – first for having a secret rally with only pre-vetted attendants in Nova Scotia, and second for escorting a reporter out of an event after she tried to question audience members. (Harper spokescreature Kory Teneycke later accused her of being “hypersensitive”.)
Jeremy Nuttall at the Tyee draws numerous (and I mean numerous) parallels between his time working for Chinese state media and his time covering the Harper campaign. An excellent read.
Other great reads this week include:
Desmond Cole’s op-ed in the Star on why the hell isn’t anybody talking about poverty anyway?
Carol Goar on Elizabeth May’s big ideas.
rabble on the Duffy email trove – some seriously great quotes in there, including this gem:
In addition, Harper still tries to claim that he had no role in the whole Duffy mess. We are to believe that his palace guard and others close to him — Wright, Chris Woodcock, Benjamin Perrin, Marjory LeBreton, Ray Novak, Andrew MacDougall, Irving Gerstein and all the rest — treated their boss like a mushroom. They, apparently, kept the famously controlling prime minister in the dark and fed him shit.
A nice long-form by Tristan Hopper at the Citizen on Stephen Harper – the man behind the public persona (spoiler alert: he’s pretty scary).
Lastly, a movement to un-unite the right.