11/02/2013 01:09 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 10:52 EST

Will Bad Publicity From the Senate Controversy Be Harper's Undoing?

Considering the iron discipline and focused messaging that has characterized this Government, I'm sure a number of Canadians are fascinated by the unfolding events of Canada's Senate expense controversy. From a research viewpoint, political controversies usually fail to cut through the clutter compared to voter concerns like "how secure is my job" or "will my mother be able to get her hip replaced."

In this case, the Senate controversy related the questionable expense claims and other foibles of some Senators as morphed into a potential defining moment for Stephen Harper -- the man responding to and attempting to manage this political mess.

This has caught the attention of voters because it has the trappings of high drama. There are the celebrity Senators -- Duffy and Wallin -- former Tory darlings and national media personalities now turned Conservative pariahs. They are not going quietly and have chosen to lash out at the Tory establishment, the Prime Minister and his entourage. There is the former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, Nigel Wright, a scion of Bay Street. Wright was widely respected in Ottawa and is considered intelligent and thoughtful in many circles. He left under a cloud for his actions in an attempt to manage the controversy for his boss. Then, there is the Prime Minister, the man who led the merger of the right, rebuilt his party into an effective political machine, and won three successive national elections.

Most political controversies include relatively faceless individuals. It is the accumulation of what some might think of as unexpected and feisty behaviour by "celebrity" personalities that has caught the attention of Canadians. It also confirms what many view as a culture of entitlement that seems pervasive in the Senate.

According to the latest CBC/Nanos survey completed on Wednesday Oct. 30, 2013, 83 per cent of Canadians are following the controversy either closely or somewhat closely.

What might give the Prime Minister's Office pause is that the handling of the Senate controversy may be overshadowing Harper's desire to focus on his economic track record. Since June 2013, the CBC/Nanos survey suggests a dramatic shift. Back in June Canadians were more likely to say they would judge the Prime Minister based on his economic stewardship rather than his handling of the Senate expense controversy. Fast forward four months and now Canadian opinion has flipped. Fifty one per cent of Canadians said the Senate expense controversy was more important than his record in promoting an environment for job creation (37 per cent said job creation was more important).

This suggests that the narrative of the controversy, which began with a focus on the Senators and their expenses, has now firmly shifted to the Prime Minister and his role. When asked what was of more concern, 55 per cent of Canadians said they were concerned about the conflicting stories related to the Prime Minister's knowledge compared to 30 per cent who said they were most concerned about the questionable living expenses claimed by Senators.

Even with the furor over the scandal, there are a number of factors which one cannot ignore. Both the level of support for the Conservatives and the proportion of Canadians that would consider voting Conservative has not materially changed. This suggests that the Tory core is still currently with Stephen Harper, even in the face of attacks in the Senate, from his former Conservative Senators, and from the opposition parties in the House of Commons.

The big question for Harper is this: how does one manage to put behind a controversy that is still likely to have twists, turns and revelations -- feeding oxygen to a story?

This likely shift in focus onto the Prime Minister leaves him at risk, not just in terms of his personal brand but also potentially how Canadian may politically judge him.

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