It’s very likely that if they were paying attention at all, the reaction from New Democrat MP Charlie Angus came as no surprise to anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office. The allegation Angus leveled after question period was pretty straightforward and, at this point, pretty familiar. “I certainly think the RCMP need to have the ability to go in and do some forensic testing in the Prime Minister’s Office to see what it is that we’re getting,” Angus told reporters after question period Monday.
We’re probably somewhere short of the CSI team swarming the PMO, but surely we’re justified in pondering the question Angus was addressing. That is, what exactly transpired – or didn’t – to lead to the Privy Council Office’s surprise Sunday’s evening admission that they did have all of Benjamin Perrin’s emails from his days at PMO, after all. As you might have heard by now, the PCO initially told both the PMO and the RCMP months ago that the emails belonging to Perrin, the prime minister’s former legal counsel, had been deleted. It wasn’t until the RCMP “sought further confirmation” about their existence recently that the PCO found them – and at the same time discovered Perrin’s emails “had in fact been retained due to a litigation hold in another matter.”
Well, who knows what that was all about? But NDP leader Thomas Mulcair took a shot at finding out Monday afternoon. How, he wondered aloud in the House of Commons, could Perrin’s emails disappear for three months? Especially, he quizzed, when they were being held for some other legal matter? Simple, according to the government. “The honourable member would have the explanation he is looking for if he had merely read the letter that PCO published,” Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, said. When Perrin left the PMO in March, Poilievre read, his emails were thought to have been deleted “as a matter of course.”
To which the NDP, led by Angus in the Commons foyer a little later, said essentially: so the hell what? He labeled the episode as “bizarre” and, his mind apparently boggling, marveled that the PCO – “the highest level of functioning bureaucracy in the country” – somehow dropped the ball on an RCMP request for access to emails from the prime minister’s office. “First, it was deleted, and then when push came to shove, suddenly they found it,” Angus said. “The government I think looked really bad today trying to dodge this one.” He then characterized that “dodge” as the PMO throwing the PCO “under the bus.”
In other words, Poilievre’s attempt to have anyone across the aisle buy the idea that all this new smoke didn’t necessarily start somewhere on the prime minister’s desk was more or less useless. The NDP didn’t buy it – and likely won’t, forever. For them, there is simply no believing that the prime minister didn’t know of what was going on under his nose. Why? Because, of all the controlling, centralized prime minister’s we’ve had, Harper, they’ll say, is the controlling-and-centralizing-est.
Perhaps it’s not just the NDP who are at least starting to feel that way. If we’re to take recentpolls as any indication (I said “if”), or if the various whispers from either back-benches that Harper is now somewhat of a liability are to be trusted, then we could be persuaded to accept that quite a few other people not wearing orange feel similarly. And even if the whisperers and polling victims aren’t thinking Harper as an electoral liability exactly, they might at least be wondering about the validity of Angus’ argument. They might be wondering how it is that one man, the prime minister, via a small cadre in his office, came to hold so much sway – even, apparently, over institutions like the Senate that he swore up and down were completely independent. And if that were the case, why not this alleged PCO thing? Why not also anything else that comes along?
This is how the opposition aims to bring Harper down. To prove not just that the rot started at the core, but that because the core is so strong, the rot must be infinitely more advanced and destructive. And that it is therefore a constant.
All of which seems to indicate that there’s a lesson in here somewhere for whoever wants to take it. Certainly, there will be something to be learned on the Conservative side – and its next leader particularly. There are lessons, too, for everyone else. Should Harper’s ultimate downfall prove to be the impressive centralized operation he had to this point apparently been running, then as the men who believe they are each the most credible alternative, both Mulcair and Justin Trudeau should be taking diligent notes.
Maybe they’ll tell you they are, and under normal circumstances it would be difficult to know whether that’s the truth. As it happens, though, we’ve been afforded some fortune in the form of Conservative MP Michael Chong’s new private member’s bill that would set out rules to change Parliament. Primary among those are two elements: That a leader’s final sign-off would no longer be needed to approve of riding nominations; and, that if 15 per cent of caucus members demand a leadership review, it has to happen. That is to say, they can now prove it.
Given the line of logic being pushed from the opposition benches, they'd better be the first to adopt this thing in some form or another. If Trudeau and Mulcair don’t agree to most, if not all, of Chong’s bill for reforms that would mark the beginning of a dismantling of the increasing centralized power of leaders’ offices – the problem they've both suggested is really at the heart of this current scandal – then while listening to them launch attacks at the Conservatives, we may all be justified in wondering, frankly, so the hell what.