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How will we get back to the 19th century without him? Why Stephen Harper should go, and won't

Richard Nixon

My first exposure to the news business from the inside was during the summer of 1973, the year the Watergate Scandal really rattled the United States and the cracks began to appear in the administration of President Richard Nixon.

The newsroom of a small provincial newspaper on an island off the coast of British Columbia was a very far indeed "outside the Beltway" of Washington, D.C., but nevertheless it was Watergate headlines that dominated the front page most days during that long-ago summer of interesting politics.

I can still recall clearly my sense of wonderment at the mighty Nixon Administration's inability to control events as the presidency veered from a second-rate burglary of interest to almost no one toward impeachment and the possibility of conviction in the Senate, borne forward on a tide of hubris, denial and contempt for the law.

As Shakespeare's Brutus observed, there is a tide in the affairs of men that can lead to shallows and miseries as well as to fortune.

Having lived through that -- if only from a distant vantage point -- I can't say I've seen anything quite like it again until our own Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his henchmen brought the Senatorial Duffygate Scandal down upon themselves a few months ago.

Like Watergate, the original issues in l'affaire senateur Duffy were trivial, but the hubris and dishonesty that drove them to the present state of crisis have not changed since Adam and Eve were tempted from the Garden.

As historian Michael Bliss observed in the Globe and Mail a few hours ago, "The problem is that, as in the Watergate affair that destroyed the Nixon Administration, lies, stonewalling, and law-breaking in high places about initially insignificant matters can escalate to the point where they bring down vast political temples."

Our Canadian system of Responsible Government does not operate quite like our American cousins' Separation of Powers model -- for one thing, there is no mechanism for impeachment of a head of government, even if the well-trained seals of the Conservative Caucus were of a mind to do so.

But it's increasingly difficult to imagine that this crisis can simply be manipulated or prorogued away, as has always been this supremely cynical government's alternative to honouring the traditions of our Westminster Parliamentary system.

It was written in this space last May 30 in the wake of the resignation of Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Harper's oh-so-generous chief of staff, that the wrong man had resigned.

"The doctrine of ministerial responsibility, surely, requires that the prime minister himself must go," I argued at the time.

As the Parliament of Canada itself explains in its primer on ministerial responsibility, ministers -- including prime ministers, it must be said -- "are individually responsible to Parliament … for their own actions and those of their department, including the actions of all officials under their management and direction, whether or not the Ministers had prior knowledge."

It's mildly satisfying to learn that others are coming at last to this conclusion.

Brent Rathgeber, my Edmonton-St. Albert riding's now-independent Member of Parliament and known to be an avid if frequently irritated reader of this blog, has now reached the same point I did less than a week before his resignation from the Harper Caucus.

"Nigel Wright cannot have taken 'full responsibility' for this fiasco," Rathgeber wrote Tuesday on his Parliamentary blog to the astonishment and delight of the news media. "It is the Prime Minister who is responsible for him and every other employee complicit in, or willfully blind to, what was going on."

Well, yeah!

But none of us should hold our breath just yet, as I also cautioned back in May. This prime minister thinks he is too essential to his project of dragging the country kicking and screaming back into the Nineteenth Century.

And given the quality of the majority of his market fundamentalist acolytes, Albertan members of the Okotoks Elite and dead-enders from Mike Harris's Ontario provincial regime, he may just be right.

If that means a debacle for his party on a scale unimagined since the departure of Brian Mulroney, it's said here he’s more likely to roll the dice and chance it than risk the possibility a prime minister Jason Kenney or Rob Anders can keep his neoliberal flame alight.

So, alas, it will be a while yet before Prime Minister Harper voluntarily boards the helicopter for the flight into retirement at Bragg Creek, or whatever western redoubt in which he decides to retire.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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