Editorial: Judgment time approaches for Harper

The writ has yet to drop, but the federal election campaign has begun de facto with the Conservatives rolling out ads saying Justin Trudeau is not ready.

Harper’s media handlers repeat what they believe is the most effective attack line: the 43-year-old Liberal Party leader lacks judgment. If voters turn around and instead assess Stephen Harper’s judgment, this line may backfire.

In the 2011 election, Harper came to the Mount Royal riding — one reporter described it as a “historic” visit — to actively and personally support the party’s “star” candidate, former municipal councilor Saulie Zajdel, who came close to unseating human rights lawyer and former federal justice minister Irwin Cotler.

Last month, Zajdel pleaded guilty to breach of trust and corruption for demanding payment of $10,000 to $15,000 for having supported a demolition permit. Three other charges against Zajdel were stayed.

Since the leader must approve all official candidates, Harper’s judgment can be questioned.

Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, all appointed by Harper, who built part of his political career on a pledge to reform the Upper House, have been suspended without pay for what was termed “inappropriate expenses.”

Duffy, the former popular CBC and CTV television reporter and host, was a star campaigner and fundraiser for the party. He faces 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery related to his housing and travel claims, contracts not connected to the Senate, and using $90,000 from Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to repay the claims. Duffy has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Many have asked, if Duffy can be charged for accepting the money from Wright, why has Wright not been charged for providing it? Wright has returned to his former employer, Toronto-based Onex Corp.

Wallin is under continued RCMP investigation for possible fraud and breach of trust linked to her expense claims. Wallin repaid a total of $154,191 to the Senate for claims she attributes to “administrative error.”

After being “punched out” by Trudeau in a fund-raising boxing match, Brazeau was charged with fraud and breach of trust for falsely claiming living expenses for a primary residence outside the national capital region. This amounted to $45,000 for Brazeau. (Former Liberal senator Mac Harb was similarly charged for false claims and has repaid all $230, 650). Brazeau also is on trial for assault and sexual assault charges, which he’s denied.

Dean Del Mastro, Harper’s former parliamentary secretary, whose role during question period was to defend the government against claims of dirty electoral tricks, has been found guilty of having committed an electoral trick, namely exceeding spending limits in the 2008 election. (Another of his roles was to rally support among Lebanese Canadians.)

Michael Sona, the only person charged in the Guelph voter-suppression scheme, was found guilty in August of attempting to prevent people from voting by sending a robocall to thousands of opposition supporters, mainly Liberals, directing them to the wrong polling station. Sona, the director of communications for the Conservative candidate, was sentenced to nine months in prison plus 12 months probation.

Leads for the robocalls were from the Conservatives’ Constituent Information Management System, or CIMS data base, but Yves Côté, Commissioner of Canada Elections, after a three-year investigation into some 2,500 complaints about robocalls in 261 ridings, concluded there was insufficient evidence to believe an offence was committed in any riding other than Guelph.

The buck stops at Harper’s desk for what his government does, which is reflected in the latest polls that put the Conservatives, who won a majority in 2011, in a dead heat in popular support with the NDP and Liberals. Harper’s stamp is on everything his government does, or fails to do, and he must bear ultimate responsibility for candidates he actively supported, promoted and trusted. He also must answer for the electoral machine and database used to mislead voters in the 2011 election. Harper’s judgment is as much on the line in this election as is Trudeau’s.

Harper’s communications advisers, meanwhile, have decided that he will not take part in what has become, for better or for worse, an important segment of federal election campaigns — the five party leaders’ debate hosted by a consortium of major broadcasters, including CBC/Radio-Canada, one in English and another in French, with simultaneous translation. They and the NDP have agreed to four other debate formats, hosted by Maclean’s Magazine and the Munk Debates. The Liberals have yet to commit, but want one that includes a town-hall format, with a live audience that gives voters a chance to ask direct questions. The NDP wants other debates, including one that focuses on women’s issues.

All parties are pushing their leaders’ strengths, and both the Conservatives and NDP believe that with more experienced leaders in terms of handling the debating pressure, they can exploit Trudeau’s relative inexperience. For the Liberals, lower expectations may translate into Trudeau appearing more likeable than either Harper or Mulcair.

Is performance in these debates a reasonable yardstick for where we should place our X on the ballot? As Doug Howat has observed on Rabble.ca, “What monster have we created when who ‘won’ a televised debate is a topic of conversation? Healthcare should be a conversation. Missing and murdered aboriginal women should be a conversation. The direction of the economy, military spending, climate change should be a conversation. These are important conversations. Who ‘won’ a game of make believe should not factor into who leads our country.”

Nevertheless, we will be watching.

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