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What does 'means' mean? Harper, the media and a growing scandal's unanswered questions

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Image: citizenactionmonitor.wordpress.com

The brief statements announcing the resignation of Stephen Harper's Chief-of-Staff Nigel Wright leave all the key questions in the Senate expenses scandal unanswered. 

In fact, Wright's statement raises new questions, especially this line: "I did not advise the Prime Minister of the means by which Sen. Duffy's expenses were repaid, either before of after the fact."

The obvious question here is, just what exactly does 'means' mean? Other questions easily come to mind, including: Did Harper direct Wright to deal with the Duffy problem by any means necessary? Did Harper know of, or approve of, a payoff of Duffy, before or after the fact, even if the prime minister had no knowledge of the 'means' involved? Does Harper think the payment was wrong? Is he mad this happened out of his office, under his nose? What did Harper know and when did he know it, or was he giving orders all along, complete with instructions to maintain plausible deniability? 

A recent blog by Elizabeth May raises more pertinent questions, as does this blog by David Climenhaga. There are many unanswered questions here. What's missing are any answers whatsoever from the government.  

But, while this scandal makes headlines around the world, no one from the Harper government, let alone the prime minister himself, has stepped forward to answer any questions about these urgent matters. Even the poor backbencher sent out to the TV talk shows in an attempt to stem the bleeding late last week was pulled off her assignment, cancelling appearances on Friday afternoon.

While Harper hid away from any and all questions over the long weekend, some of his key MPs and cabinet ministers sent out odes to the departed Mr. Wright. On Twitter Pierre Poilievre lamented, "Saddened to hear of Nigel Wright's departure. He is an honourable man, and great Canadian." Immigration Minister Jason Kenney joined in, tweeting, "Very sorry about Nigel Wright's resignation. Brilliant, decent man who made huge sacrifices to go into public service. We need more like him".

If this was calculated spin from the Conservatives, it was awfully confusing. If Everybody Loves Nigel, and if Nigel's integrity and judgement are equal to his half-marathon-a-day lung capacity, then why on earth would anyone believe that Nigel acted alone in making this ham-fisted and potentially illegal payoff to Senator Duffy? An in-depth, front page Globe and Mail profile published Saturday even says that inside the PMO staffers faced with a predicament would often ask themselves, "What would Nigel do?" From everything we know, what Nigel would surely not do is something this sketchy without some urgent implied or explicit directive from his boss. 

Michael Den Tandt wrote convincingly in the Ottawa Citizen

To suggest all of this occurred without the prime minister’s knowledge is simply not credible. Given the stakes, if Harper had no advance knowledge at all of the Duffy transaction -- as opposed to, say, no knowledge of "the means" -- would the PMO not be shouting that to the rooftops?

This hits the nail on the head. Harper is now suffering from implausible deniability. Kenney and Poilievre's rhetorical flourishes only add to the sense of incoherence and confusion. 

But it's as if Harper thinks he can just wait this out. And, given the way he's gotten away with his over-the-top restrictions on media access and questions in the past, maybe he can.

In Harper's Ottawa, media and political watchers have been reduced to little more than Kremlinologists, parsing brief statements from the PM for hints of meaning. (I'm using this analogy for fun, since Harper's ministers love to engage in bizarre, ahistorical red-baiting; and because, well, Harper's personality is somewhat Brezhnevian.)

 Harper's relationship with the media has now entered full-on tragicomic mode. Huffington Post Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj, appearing on CBC TV this weekend, deadpanned a hilarious and sadly accurate assessment of the prospects for a journalist asking Harper about the Wright resignation and related matters. Since Harper will be meeting his caucus Tuesday in Ottawa, and then flying off to Latin America, the prime minister "will have to face media, in Peru," so that these matters could be raised, "maybe in their two questions they will be allowed."

There you have it. With perhaps the most serious political scandal to hit Ottawa in years, we are reduced to hoping that an intrepid journalist in Lima or Bogota might be able to sneak in a question to Harper.

This situation in Canada represents a great leap backwards for democracy. The media cannot play its democratic role without means and opportunity to question the country's top decision-makers and elected officials. 

How bad is it? It's so bad that nobody seems to have even considered that, given this political storm, perhaps Prime Minister Harper should convene -- what are those things called again? -- a press conference, and maybe even one with more than a handful of pre-selected questions.

Actual media scrutiny is what is required when the highest office in the land is involved in dodgy, unethical and potentially illegal matters. Even Richard Nixon understood and conceded this point.

Take a look back at this short video clip from a press conference in 1973, in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Nixon's famous "I'm not a crook" line comes from this press conference, where the president was addressing and answering questions from a gathering of 400 journalists.

Even as things become otherwise Nixonian in Canadian politics, no one can even imagine a scene like this in Harperland.

This government's relationship with the media is a scandal in its own right. 


Image: citizenactionmonitor.wordpress.com 

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