THE BLOG

Are the Harper Conservatives Unraveling?

05/27/2013 12:19 EDT | Updated 07/27/2013 05:12 EDT
Getty Images
Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper attends the ceremonial funeral of British former prime minister Margaret Thatcher at St Paul's Cathedral in central London on April 17, 2013. The funeral of Margaret Thatcher took place on April 17, with Queen Elizabeth II leading mourners from around the world in bidding farewell to one of Britain's most influential and divisive prime ministers. AFP PHOTO / ANDREW COWIE (Photo credit should read ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images)

When a party has been in power for a lengthy period, there are bound to be gaffes, mistakes, even scandals. Even with the most vigilant prime minister or premier, there will be incompetent Cabinet Ministers, MLAs/MPs, and staffers. There will be those who have gained a sense of complacency and entitlement after many years of government, who will abuse their power.

The halls of power can often be remote from the lives and concerns of the general public, something that can lead those occupying the higher levels of power in a governing party to exist in their own echo chamber, to become out of touch. Too often, opposition parties -- or third parties -- campaign against corruption and abuses of power only to be co-opted into many of these same acts once in government.

For a long time, it seemed Stephen Harper and the Conservative government were made of Teflon. Defying predictions that he would be too right-wing to ever become prime minister, Harper won a minority government in 2006. The Conservative minority faced a serious threat to power when the opposition parties teamed up to propose a coalition government, going after Harper's campaign finance reforms that would disproportionately hurt opposition parties, as well as lack of action on the economy in the early months of the global recession.

The Harper Conservatives ended up making "coalition" a political liability -- even though coalition governments are commonplace in Europe.

The Harper government faced serious accusations over abusing Parliamentary procedure, proroguing Parliament to avoid contentious debates and votes. The Conservative government was accused of being too right-wing for a centre-left country. Through accusations, protests, and many forms of opposition and criticism, the Harper government survived. They were re-elected with a larger minority in 2008, and a majority government in 2011.

The Harper government benefited from a Liberal Party torn by infighting, and overall by a progressive opposition split between the Liberals and NDP -- an NDP which, oftentimes, went after Liberals more aggressively than they went after Conservatives.

However, in recent weeks and months, something has changed. The disillusion has spread to the Conservative base -- with unrest among backbench MPs, with polls now showing the Conservative government below 30 per cent support, with the Liberal Party -- benefiting in part from a honeymoon period with their new leader Justin Trudeau -- in the lead, the third party looking like a serious contender for government.

Harper's Conservatives suddenly seem less invincible. What is particularly devastating are the scandals involving the Senate -- in particular that three Conservative appointed Senators, Patrick Brazeau, and former journalists Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, have become subjects of controversy, with Mike Duffy especially in the limelight.

The Mike Duffy controversy has forced the resignation of a senior Harper staffer, Chief of Staff Nigel Wright, who wrote a $90,000 cheque to Duffy to cover housing expenses the Senator improperly claimed.

In his final years as a journalist, Duffy was blatantly using his post -- a post that was supposed to entail political objectivity -- to audition to the Conservatives for a Senate appointment. This included replaying a tape of then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion stumbling over some preliminary questions in an interview (footage which Dion had been promised would not air) during the 2008 election, proclaiming this great news for the Conservatives, bad news for the Liberals.

What is particularly ironic in all this is that Harper and the Conservatives -- and especially their predecessor the Reform Party of which Harper had been part of -- had vigorously campaigned against appointed Senators. This was part of the Reform/Conservative campaign against the Ottawa political "establishment." However, Harper now finds his government in trouble not only because of appointed Senators, but especially because of a particular Senator -- Mike Duffy -- who can be considered the ultimate Ottawa "establishment" insider.

The Harper Conservatives won power in 2006 in large part by campaigning against Liberal "corruption" -- the sponsorship scandal. However, they now find themselves embroiled in scandal, facing accusations of political "corruption" themselves.

What the long-term implications of this are is uncertain, is this an extended -- but temporary -- series of bad news cycles for the Conservative government? Or, is this the beginning of an unravelling that will lead the Conservatives to be defeated in 2015? Could a fragmented opposition finally coalesce around one party, especially if poll numbers for the Liberals hold up, if Justin Trudeau's honeymoon poll numbers are actually the signal of a wider political shift?

One thing is for certain: Stephen Harper does not seem quite so Teflon anymore.