Eight key words from the Senate scandal

Tim
Tim Harper
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National Affairs column

A Conservative government that has thrived by reducing its political message to short, snappy bumper stickers can, in times of scandal, die by the same method.
For Stephen Harper, politics in recent years has been rooted in a "strong, stable, Conservative majority."

He vanquished one opponent who, we were told, "didn't come back for you," and he is trying to take down another who is "in way over his head."

The bumper sticker works because it reduces the complex to the simple and the repetition cuts through the everyday clutter and sticks with voters who do not have the time or inclination to drill through the political white noise to which they are daily exposed.

These same voters will not read 81 pages of RCMP affidavits in the PMO-Senate scandal, but there are at least three bumper sticker messages in this trove of emails which could stick.

And if they seep into the public lexicon, Harper will - if he runs again - be wearing them into the 2015 election campaign:

"Good to go."

One could argue this one has already pierced the public consciousness.

This comes courtesy of former PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright, to Harper's legal counsel, Benjamin Perrin, on Feb. 22, at a time when there was active discussion of using the Conservative party fund to repay what was then thought to be a $32,000 expense debt owed by Sen. Mike Duffy.

That deal ended when the Duffy deficit ballooned to $90,000.

But on this day, Wright tells Perrin he wants to speak to Harper before everything is considered final. An hour later, he delivers the thumbs-up email.

Longer version: "We are good to go from the PM."

The phrase clearly delights the Opposition NDP.

Opposition leader Tom Mulcair recently strode to a gaggle of waiting journalists with a smile, proclaiming he was ready, with a laughing "Good to go."

The phrase has also become a social media favourite with Harper opponents suggesting a 2015 campaign slogan: "Harper, he's good to go."

"Locked in."

This comes from a March 8 email from PMO staffer Patrick Rogers, who wrote, in connection with alleged audit tampering involving Conservative Sen. Irving Gerstein and Deloitte managing partner Michael Runia, "the senator will call back once we have Deloitte locked in."

Deloitte auditors testified last Thursday that Runia did, in fact, make a call inquiring about the status of the audit, but they said they were not influenced by the call and divulged no information.

Wright and Rogers were trying to get Deloitte "locked in" because of a deal struck with Duffy that, in return for repayment of his expenses, would result in Deloitte reaching no conclusion on his primary residence.

Ultimately, citing "lack of clarity" on the rules, they came to exactly that finding.

And a third.

"This is epic."

This three-word phrase, again compliments of Rogers, works on two levels.

This was Rogers' reaction to a snag - a staffer in Sen. Marjory LeBreton's office, Chris Montgomery, was playing the ethical card as PMO staffers sought to whitewash the Duffy Senate committee report.

"This is epic. Montgomery is the problem," Rogers wrote to Wright and his PMO colleague Chris Woodcock on May 8.

The Rogers email shows how seriously the Prime Minister's Office took a threat from a player with the effrontery to try to play by the rules.

But by choosing the word "epic," Rogers also plays to the perception that Harper's office is being driven by a gang of youthful neophytes. It is a phrase most often used by those in their 20s and would be immediately understood by what has been described as "the shorts pants brigade" in the office.

Tens of thousands of words are churned out about politics every day in this country, but few have any staying power in the public arena.

When they do, the power of these words cannot be underestimated.

Those eight words sum up three threads in this ongoing scandal: Harper's possible involvement in the use of Conservative funds to pay back Duffy, potential outside influence brought to bear on an independent audit of the senator's spending and the direct involvement of the PMO in the whitewashing of a report as part of a secret deal it sought to cover up.

Eight words directly from those involved that speak directly to the lack of ethics in Harper's office.

Eight words, among many, which threaten to stay in the voters' minds.

And that could, indeed, be epic for the Conservatives.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column is distributed through Torstar Syndication Services. tharper@thestar.ca, Twitter: @nutgraf1

Organizations: RCMP, PMO-Senate, Duffy Senate committee Conservatives

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