POLITICS

Duffy Developments Put Tories In Damage Control Mode

08/22/2015 12:23 EDT | Updated 08/22/2016 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA — The week began with Conservative operatives whisking their party's former Senate leader away from inquisitive reporters — and it never got much better.

As each day of testimony from the Mike Duffy trial traced a tighter and tighter loop around Stephen Harper's inner circle, the mood on the Conservative campaign bus grew ever frostier.

When Marjory Lebreton, the former Conservative leader in the Senate, was sighted at Harper's campaign event in Ottawa last Sunday, efforts to ask her questions were quickly kiboshed by nervous party officials.

The Duffy questions continued — so much so that Harper, who weathered the barrage with a tight smile and an impervious poker face, eventually took to answering questions he hadn't been answering.

Then came Earl Cowan.

It was Tuesday in Toronto, and the partisan crowd was so fed up with the Duffy line of questioning that one member urged them to ask something about "the topic at hand." Harper himself shushed his own supporter.

Then, when it was over, the man identified in media reports as Cowan launched into a profanity-laced diatribe against reporters. Cue the Conservative officials — accompanied by burly security personnel — and an apology from campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke.

Much of the controversy is the result of testimony at Duffy's trial that has implicated Ray Novak, the prime minister's current chief of staff, as knowing about his predecessor's plan in 2013 to provide the embattled senator with $90,000 of his own money to repay dubious housing and travel claims.  

That has meant not only defending Harper's chief of staff, but keeping him away from reporters, in hopes of weathering the storm and choking off the controversy by sticking to the same script.

It hasn't been easy.

It's "unfathomable" that Novak knew that Wright was planning to use his own money to fix the Duffy problem and didn't inform Harper, Teneycke has told reporters.

Enter Benjamin Perrin, the PMO's former lawyer, who testified Thursday that Novak was explicitly informed both before and during a conference call in 2013 that Wright would be footing the bill.

Teneycke has yet to respond to Perrin's testimony.

The burning question now is to what extent the controversy will impact voters when they head to the polls in just under two months.

An online poll released this week by Abacus Data suggested the entire country is "not transfixed" by the trial, but enough would-be voters are paying attention to "highlight the risk for the Conservatives."

Still, there's only one more week. After Friday, the trial breaks until November, at which point all ballots will have been safely cast.

"By Oct. 19, people might have forgotten about it," predicted Steve Patten, a political science professor at the University of Alberta who studies Canadian conservatism.

That said, while Harper is one of the best "at staying on message," one of the noticeable impacts of the latest developments in court has been the degree to which the focus has been on Harper's office and style of leadership.

At Conservative rallies, meanwhile, loyal supporters — and it is the loss of support from core Tory voters that perhaps poses the greatest danger to the party's fortunes — are more fed up with Duffy than with the PMO.

"I think a lot of good people have been hurt by Mike Duffy," said Darren Deluca, who attended a rally Thursday in the B.C. riding of Courtenay-Alberni.

"Mr. Wright, I think, is a really good guy and I think he got caught up in a bad situation he was trying to make better — and I'm sure he regrets ever meeting Mike Duffy."

Deluca summed up the frustration Conservatives are feeling with the Duffy fixation, noting that people are generally more concerned about other issues, such as the state of the economy.

"I think Duffy is kind of a tempest in a teapot when it comes to Ottawa and when it comes to the national media."

Ellen Smout, a Conservative supporter in London, Ont., agreed. "Let the trial continue, move on from all of the wall-to-wall nonsense coverage of it."

That's unlikely to happen, of course. What's more likely is a change in Conservative strategy if there are signs the current game plan isn't working, Patten said.

Public opinion polls generally suggest the Conservatives are far from majority government territory.

Patten said he will be watching to see if the party changes course in the coming week.

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