Here are a few facts.
The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff is part of what is known as ‘exempt staff,’ that is, he or she can be hired outside the normal civil service process.
However, that same Chief of Staff is employed by — and paid by — the Government of Canada, not by a political party.
The Prime Minister is, at one and the same time, leader of a political party — currently the Conservative Party — and chief executive of the Canadian government.
It is normal that a Prime Minister should have occasional partisan political duties, in addition to his/her main job of, as they sometimes say, ‘running the country.’
Does that mean the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff would need handy access to party funds, to pay for those occasional political duties?
That seems to be the Conservative justification for the secret Conservative Party million dollar trust fund that CBC’s Greg Weston revealed on Thursday.
That fund is controlled by the Chief of Staff.
And when Nigel Wright was Chief of Staff he was in control of a fund which he himself had, in part, set up.
There is very little accountability or transparency for political party spending between election campaigns.
For the most part, Elections Canada’s rules and oversight only apply during the formal campaign period.
That is one reason why the Conservatives engage in so much advertising between elections — there are no spending limits, and the Conservatives have plenty of cash to burn.
Neither Wright nor any other Conservative (including the PM) voluntarily disclosed the $90,000 payment
The public has very little way of knowing what Nigel Wright, as the Prime Minister’s Chief of staff, did with that million dollar fund, which was entirely at his disposal.
The public does, however, know that Wright did not voluntarily disclose the fact that he had, somehow, somewhere, found $90,000 to pay Senator Duffy’s bills.
Wright only admitted he paid those bills after CTV News found out about the payment — from an overly garrulous Duffy, himself, it appears.
The Prime Minister claims he only learned about the whole sordid business when the rest of us did.
But, in answering questions in the House on the matter, Stephen Harper always makes the strange argument that the minute he found out about the $90,000 he ordered that the information be “made public.”
It was already public. It had been broadcast on national television, and widely reported in all the media.
Now, let’s give Harper the benefit of the doubt, and accept that he knew nothing of Wright’s payment at the time it happened.
Here is an unanswered question, though.
Had Harper found out about the payment differently, privately and not through the media, would he really have had that news broadcast to all Canadians?
It is an entirely hypothetical question.
What we do know is that Wright, Harper’s right hand man, made every effort to keep what we are to believe was a $90,000 act of misplaced charity a secret.
All the while, Wright had virtually unfettered and unsupervised control of one million dollars of Conservative Party funds. The existence of that money was also a secret.
Party spokespeople say those Party funds were not used to help out a Senator who was, let us not forget, one of the Party’s star fundraisers.
But we have no way of knowing what might have happened had the $90,000 payment not been made public when it was.
The secret fund could have been used to reimburse Wright for his bizarre and inexplicable act of pure philanthropy.
That is also — yes — a hypothetical proposition.
Is this how to run a mature democracy?
The bigger, and not hypothetical, question is: do Canadians have a right to worry about a too-close association of the Conservative Party and the Government?
One characteristic of dictatorships is the total association of Party and State.
Stalin did not even bother holding an official government title. He was simply General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, in which capacity he was all-powerful.
Healthy and vital democracies generally want to keep some separation between Party and State.
Once elected, a government, in a democracy, is supposed to be the government of all, not just of its own supporters.
And the notion of democracy is posited not only on the idea of competition among parties at election time, but on a continuing role between elections for all parties and for all elected officials, regardless of party.
The Harper government has very amply shown its near total contempt for parliamentary democracy, in many ways.
Most notable among those ways is the government’s unprecedented use of omnibus legislation to push through bulky packages of disparate and unrelated measures. This way, the Conservatives avoid the messy, democratic business of committee hearings, with their public input, and full parliamentary debate.
Brent Rathgeber, the Edmonton MP who just resigned from the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent, says that during the minority government period the Party leadership justified Harper’s autocratic style with the need to keep tight control and discipline in order to win a majority.
Now that they have a majority, Rathgeber notes ruefully, that controlling and autocratic approach endures.
It seems to have become something of a habit.
One psychological explanation for this distrust of democracy may be that the Conservatives seem afflicted with an almost neurotic sense of being perennial underdogs.
They seem to suffer inexplicable feelings of inadequacy and lack of respect, even when they hold the reins of power.
Public Security Minister Vic Toews expressed that strange underdog complex during the debate on the abolition of the gun registry.
When the Conservatives were challenged on the fact that they not only wanted to end the registry, but also destroy all the accumulated data — something they had never promised to do — Toews argued that he and his colleagues did not want any future ‘coalition’ government to get its hands on that data bank, in order to restore the registry.
Toews openly expressed that perennial Conservative sense of being imposters who only temporarily occupy the seats of power.
Many other Conservatives politicians frequently mutter about unfriendly ‘liberal elites,’ and a ‘hostile media.’
Senator Marjorie LeBreton — with her recent denunciation of ‘media lickspittles’ — is only one of example of that “we-are-the-real-victims-here” syndrome.
This sense of being not entirely respected and loved, and not fully accepted as the legitimate governing party, serves to justify not only the Prime Minister’s tight control of his caucus, but the extraordinary measures to assure that the needs of the Party are never overlooked in the hurly-burly of government business.
Ergo, the million dollar Party fund in the Chief of Staff’s bottom drawer.
One never knows, after all, when there might be a need to spend a little money, out of taxpayers’ view, to promote the interests of the Conservative Party.
It may all be normal operating procedure.
A Chief of Staff is a political person, after all.
He is not the Clerk of the Privy Council, who is the supposedly non-partisan chief of the public service.
But given Harper’s record on democracy, Canadians might have reason to feel uncomfortable with a Prime Minister who has chosen to so closely marry the operations of government to the political activities of the Conservative Party.
One of the main ways he has engineered that marriage is through the double role of his Chief of Staff.
And that is why the secret fund the CBC uncovered should be a matter of real concern.