Following the latest revelation that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office asked partisan staffers to compile for incoming cabinet ministers advice on “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders,” there can be little doubt the ethical corruption the Conservative Party has been dealing with for months is not some kind of aberration.
While conservative pundits, such as Jason Lietaer—who said it is “much ado about nothing” in an interview on the Sun News Network—tried to downplay the story, Canadians should be very concerned that it speaks to a culture of paranoia, an us-against-them mentality, that permeates to the very core of Conservative politics.
At first, I thought comparisons to Richard Nixon and Watergate might be a little bit over-the-top until I found out Peter Kent, outgoing environment minister, was among those raising the spectre of the late, disgraced American President.
There is nothing wrong with briefing new cabinet ministers on the bureaucrats, organizations and journalists they are likely to interact with in the course of their new duties. There is nothing wrong with that information including where these stakeholders stand on the issues, policies and legislation facing the ministries.
But even if you subscribe to the every-government-does-it defence, it is the language of “friends” and “enemies” that is anathema to the concept of a modern democracy. Aren’t we all supposed to be on the same side, that of making Canada a better place for future generations? We may disagree on what that looks like, but that is why a government that truly cares about the betterment of the country should engage, not avoid or try to silence, those who hold opposing viewpoints.
Sometimes, of course, governments simply lose touch with the will of the people, which is why we have the mechanism of free and open elections—although we’ve also seen the Conservatives try to undermine that process with tactics such as robocalls, gerrymandering electoral boundaries and the attempted suppression of university student voting.
I would be willing to entertain the idea that we in the media are making too much of this if it was an isolated incident, but it is only the latest in an ongoing litany of scandal indicative of a PMO that inhabits a black-and-white world where dissent is viewed not as an opportunity for civil and productive discourse, but something to be avoided or crushed.
The PMO has thus far been silent on the issue, but if the history of this government remains consistent, it is likely some staffer or another—possibly Erica Furtado from the PMO’s issues management department, whose email it was that was leaked to the Toronto Star—will voluntarily or be forced to fall on her sword in a vain attempt to protect the Prime Minister.
Former Tory backbencher Brent Rathgeber—who quit the Tory caucus in June saying, “I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked”—perhaps portended this eventuality when he commented he was not surprised because the PMO is staffed by “very young, very hyper-partisan individuals.”
Blame may roll downhill, but responsibility remains at the top. The dysfunctional culture in the PMO specifically, and in the Conservative Party generally, is not a culture that can thrive without, at the very least, the complicity of the person in charge.
If Harper is not yet the most polarizing Prime Minister in Canadian history, I suggest he is well on his way. He would be well-served, if he wants to reverse the slide into notoriety, to add one more name to the top of the enemies list: Stephen Harper.
The idea of “friends and enemies” is insulting and disrespectful of well-intentioned Canadians who disagree with the government, yet another disgrace the P.M. should get out in front of and apologize for.
However, if he wants to continue to play it that way, I, for one, would be proud to find myself on one of those lists.