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The Bruce Carson affair: Notes on a scandal that won't stick

Bruce Carson, a former top adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is shown walking to Hy's Steakhouse in Ottawa on May 1, 2008.

Jake Wright/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Whatever else he might be, Bruce Carson is no Jaime Watt, which is why Stephen Harper's reaction to his former aide's alleged transgressions is so different from Mike Harris's.

The Conservative Leader declared Monday he was as shocked as everyone else to learn that Mr. Carson - who is being investigated for possibly trying to steer contracts to his fiancée - had previously been convicted of multiple counts of fraud.

"Had I known these things, obviously I wouldn't have hired him," Mr. Harper declared. "I am [just]learning these things as well."

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Journalists long in the tooth will recall a similar affair 16 years ago.

Jaime Watt was the communications guru behind the election campaign that vaulted the Ontario Conservatives from third place to first in the landmark 1995 provincial election. He would have had a senior position in the Harris government, had the Toronto Star not revealed that the young whiz kid had once been convicted of fraud over a failed business.

Mr. Watt quit before anyone had a chance to fire him. He went on to chair Navigator, the high-powered strategic communications firm that has rescued more than a few tarnished images. (Mr. Carson could use their services.)

The Conservatives continued to employ Mr. Watt on a contract basis, and when Howard Hampton criticized the government for employing a "convicted felon," Mr. Harris took the NDP leader to the woodshed.

Mr. Harper could have been equally loyal to his former aide. Instead, he disowned him.

The Conservative Leader is not known for loyalty above all. Ask Helena Guergis, the former cabinet minister he fired for, as it turned out, doing nothing wrong at all.

But mostly Mr. Carson has been disowned because, after his years in government, he didn't advise others on how best, say, to land a government contract. Instead, he might have tried to land those contracts on behalf of his girlfriend. Mr. Watt would be the first person to tell him that was a very bad idea.

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The interesting thing about all of this is that the Nanos Research daily poll shows that all the controversy and alarums of the past month - from contempt-of-Parliament motions to the Carson affair and beyond - have done nothing to budge support for the Conservatives.

Instead, jobs and the economy track ever higher as the issue that matters most of voters.

Go figure.

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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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