Here we go again. A key staffer in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office and a Conservative fundraiser made separate backroom interventions in a dispute between a Montreal real-estate firm and the Department of Public Works. Asked about the propriety of those meetings yesterday, Mr. Harper said nothing was wrong because no benefits were granted. Then he resorted to the sad ploy of noting opposition MPs had cited two people of Greek origin, but "that doesn't mean there's a conspiracy here."
The casual suggestion that the opposition has an ethnic bias was a disgraceful way to deal with legitimate questions about high-level political intervention in a legal dispute. Deputy press secretary Dimitri Soudas, a key architect of Mr. Harper's Quebec strategy, called an unusual meeting with senior ministerial staffers from Public Works in the Prime Minister's Office in early August, 2006. In what he now characterizes as an effort "to serve the public," Mr. Soudas raised the possibility of the department's dropping its plan to reclaim a building complex from the Rosdev Group.
Yesterday, both Mr. Harper and Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan said nothing was wrong with the meetings because no preferential treatment was given. Surely the mere fact that such high-level meetings took place - one within the Prime Minister's Office itself - constitutes preferential treatment.Yes, those are some pretty darned good questions. I'm sure Justice Gomery will helpfully express some more of his newfound outrage for the Harper government at news of the latest Harper government wrongdoing. Doesn't feel so good to have ushered in this crowd, does it now?
Other serious questions remain. Why would Mr. Harper imply that his questioners were racists, a tactic that backfired so disastrously on Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty last year? How many other times have Mr. Harper's political staffers ushered individuals into the company of ministerial officials? And, most important, are such helpful interventions really a matter for the Ethics Commissioner? (emphasis added)
Regarding whether this is a matter for the Ethics Commissioner...at the very minimum it is. A traditional government with a healthy respect for accountability would fire Mr. Soudas. That's what should happen. And the actions of this staffer - likely sanctioned by the PMO because face it, everything is - should remain the focus here. It's a pretty persuasive case of preferential treatment being explored in exchange for political return in Montreal. That's just not on.
The side issue, reprehensible as it was, was Harper's attempt in the House yesterday to make the allegations of ethical breaches into racist allegations. The mind boggles at the thought process the PM must have gone through, sitting there in the House and coming up with this as an actual response to a question. The only thing I can come up with is he thought he could turn this into the Conservatives defending an ethnic minority and helping their electoral fortunes along the lines of their "ethnic outreach" effort. The problem, of course, there was no ethnic community in need of defending. Not, that is, until the PM opened his mouth. If this was his intent, it backfired in a major foot-in-mouth kind of way.
I wrote something earlier in the week about taking a closer look at Harper's real leadership abilities and what's actually there once you look under the rock. His puny statement yesterday is another example of the Harper judgment in action. Naked, unassisted, from his gut, raw instinct on full display. The PM unscripted. And hitting what has to be an absolute low for a Prime Minister of late. Needless to say, the notion that the Conservatives are going to run their next election campaign on the issue of leadership, with Harper as an iconic leader, could end up being a very risky proposition.