That is the cardinal rule of high stakes political damage control. Do everything else conceivable: protect the prime minister, shade things to your favour, manipulate, prevaricate, avoid unpleasant truths, deflect, distract and dance a jig if you have to. But don’t lie.
Governments of all stripe, in situations of all sort, have adhered to this ethic all over modern Canadian political history. For two reasons. First, lying is wrong. Second, it’s stupid. People roll their eyes in response to the first argument – such is the cynicism that infects our popular attitudes. But in my experience elected leaders and those around them are particularly alert to the fact that lying pollutes the air and water of politics. It fogs future claims to credibility and cripples public believe. People, as a rule, don’t like liars. And politicians, as a rule, like to be liked.
It is also stupid because lying rarely works and usually makes things worse. There is another problem. Once lying becomes an acceptable damage control tool, it also becomes addictive. After all, fabrication is far easier than wrestling with ugly truths. None of the brow sweat of real crisis management needs to be spilled. Just invent some fish story and hope you don’t get busted. ProTip: you at all times get busted.
As a senior aide to a previous prime minister – one that inherited the hellfire of the sponsorship scandal – I spent some time in the septic tank of crisis management. Watching PMO emails read aloud in court gives me the hives. I know how a public airing of my private correspondence would appear. I’d be exposed as a reptilian creature of constant political calculation, scramble-ass tactics, back-forty profanity, and a peculiar fascination with Bigfoot sightings.
It would be gruesomely bad. But it would not, I feel confident in saying, expose any effort to lie or get others to lie. Not because I am particularly virtuous. But because I was coached according to the above-mentioned longstanding ethic – you don’t lie. It’s wrong and it’s stupid.
Years ago, I was once assigned to assist the late Herb Gray as he took questions for the Finance Minister. In the course of one reply, he misstated the history of a tax measure. It was not deliberate and slipped past unnoticed. When I informed him of it afterward he was alarmed, “Dear Lord, I’ve misled the House.” He immediately sent word to the Speaker that he would rise on a point of privilege to retract and clarify. I keep in mind that in particular how he insisted that it be done impulsively in an effort to mitigate any harm to his reputation as an honourable member.
Such an episode is flatly inconceivable today. Question Period now features a steady river of exaggerations and outright mistruths. Though many imagine otherwise, none of this is politics-as-usual. It is a departure from past practice. Times may have been tough and partisan, but, as a rule, parliamentarians of all variety were conscious of the line between truth and its alternative. In general, they took care to mind that line.
In this context, the trial of Mike Duffy serves to remind that this particular government – led by this particular prime minister – plays by a different set of rules. Stephen Colbert called it truthiness. Tom Flanagan has characterized it as being guided not by whether a thing is true but whether it is plausible. Now, Canadians have been given cause to question whether some in Harper’s PMO crossed into territory that was neither.
For example, we know that media lines were prepared by PMO officials in 2013 based on a clear falsehood: that Mike Duffy personally repaid his expenses. Seven senior members of the prime minister’s entourage – according to email evidence disclosed in court – knew that was not true. But Duffy was permitted to say it anyway.
There is also the example of the prime minister telling the House of Commons that only one person in his office knew of the name of the game payment – which, again, was not true and was known to not be true by the same senior staff members. Stunningly, these same PMO officials did not rush to tell the prime minister to stop telling Parliament things that were plainly false.
Until this week, peering through the lens of a former PMO staffer, I was actually willing to imagine most of what we had been told. I felt that Nigel Wright was acting, in difficult circumstances and dealing with a scurrilous character, as best he could until making a terrible decision to finance Mike Duffy. I didn’t exactly see that as evidence of ecclesiastical purity as he claims, but it could at least be chalked up to understandable human failure. I also believed that Ray Novak knew nothing of it – because that’s what he said. And I sincerely believed all along that Harper was unaware.
Now, I don’t know what to imagine. The kaleidoscope of improbabilities surrounding the PMO’s evolving account has become preposterous. Of this much, I am certain: if it is proven that Novak did know about the payment then, like the Conservatives’ own spokesperson, I find it “unfathomable” that he wouldn’t tell his boss. And if Harper did know all along, we have reached an unprecedented level of deceit.
For the sake of our democratic health, let’s hope that’s wrong. But let’s also set our standards higher. What we know already is profoundly bad. People assume that PMO dictates false statements for others to repeat each day. They do not. Or, at least, until recently they did not. It is this government’s willingness to play fast and loose with previously cardinal rules of political conduct that makes it so difficult to now give them the advantage of the doubt. In a very direct way, that confirms the wisdom of the rule all along. Never lie.
Scott Reid is a principal at Feschuk.Reid and a CTV News political analyst. He was director of communications for former prime minister Paul Martin. Follow him on Twitter.com/_scottreid.