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Harper’s tried-and-true crisis management tactics fall short

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to his caucus in Ottawa on May 21, 2013.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Stephen Harper's approach to managing crises – fire, stonewall and punt – was on vintage display as he addressed caucus over the Senate expenses scandal. That approach has served the Prime Minister well in the past. But it may not work this time, because this time is different.

Let's take a look at the Prime Minister's crisis-management strategy: First and foremost, it involves sacrificing anyone whose actions threaten to damage the Conservative government's credibility.

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When Bev Oda, then international co-operation minister, was found to have claimed lavish expenses for parts of a trip to London – switching hotels and charging for a $16 orange juice – she publicly apologized, repaid the money, resigned from cabinet and as an MP not long after.

When allegations surfaced that Helena Guergis, then a cabinet minister, might have been involved in improper lobbying by her husband, former MP Rahim Jaffer, Ms. Guergis was forced to resign from cabinet and caucus.

When foreign minister Maxime Bernier left sensitive documents in the apartment of his girlfriend, he resigned.

Senators alleged to have filed improper expenses? Senators are out of caucus. The chief of staff tried to smooth things by personally paying one senator's expenses? The chief of staff is gone.

A second element of that scandal-smothering approach is to punt the issue to a neutral third party and then refuse to answer any further questions, claiming officials must be allowed to do their jobs.

In various controversies, the Tories have invoked investigations by Elections Canada, the courts, the police or this or that commissioner to get to the bottom of allegations of wrongdoing. Either the investigations came up empty-handed, or reported long after the issue had faded from the public mind.

This time, the parliamentary ethics commissioner and a Senate committee are looking at the Senate expenses affair. Sure enough, Foreign Minister John Baird urged the opposition to give the commissioners time – no doubt hoping they will take a great deal of it – to do their jobs.

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The third element is to minimize the exposure of the Prime Minister. In this respect, it is interesting to compare Mr. Harper's approach with that of Paul Martin when he became prime minister and inherited the sponsorship scandal. Sponsorship was, of course, a whole lot bigger than Senate expenses. Millions in taxpayer dollars were involved and there was clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing almost from the start. Mr. Martin held a press conference and went on tour, declared himself "mad as hell" at what was going on within his own party, and convened a public inquiry.

None of this saved his government from defeat at the hands of Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Afterward, many Liberals concluded Mr. Martin should have stonewalled. He should have said the RCMP was investigating and refused further comment on the grounds that the police needed to be allowed to do their job.

Mr. Harper clearly agrees with that assessment. He has held no press conference, called no public inquiry and is now in Latin America on a trade mission, leaving underlings to handle the outrage in the Commons. And when in doubt, please refer to Mr. Baird's comments above.

So why might this approach not work? Simply because the government's actions have angered the very people who voted this government in – those who are naturally suspicious of Ottawa and who counted on the Conservatives to clean the place up. They may see firing everyone involved as a good first step, but they want answers and they want their Prime Minister to tell them what happened and to hold himself accountable.

That's why the tried-and-true tactics of fire, stonewall and punt might not work this time. That's why there is so much unhappiness with how this Prime Minister is handling this file.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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