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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Connecting the Dots: Intentions.

When Nigel Wright resigned on Sunday, it let Prime Minister Stephen Harper off the hook. Again. But it doesn't change what happened. Nor should it. For someone who likes to question the judgement of others as a routine exercise to show how competent he is at making high level judgement calls, Stephen Harper has really botched most of those calls quite a bit lately. If Justin Trudeau is the one showing poor judgement and is in way over his head, what does that say about Stephen Harper, the man who appointed the Senator (Mike Duffy) who caused the trouble and who hired the man who was his chief of staff (Wright) that issued a personal cheque to make the scandal go away?

Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff, quit his post early Sunday morning amid questions about whether his secret $90,000 payment to Sen. Mike Duffy deliberately thwarted a probe into the former Conservative senator’s expenses.
Announcing his resignation, Wright took “sole responsibility” for the payment, revealed last week.

And while others may have had good intentions although they made horrible judgement calls, I don't think anybody thinks that Harper doesn't know what he is doing, and that his motives are not laced with good intentions towards the people who voted to elect him. But more about that later.

Last week I watched an interview on Charlie Rose with George W. Bush as he opened the new library in his name in Houston. Most of us have pretty strong opinions on W, and I am no different. I have always viewed him as a buffoon who had no business holding the most important and powerful job on the planet. This is a job in which you hold the power to start very expensive and destructive wars (in which many Americans and other people die), and make ultimate decisions in which the balance of the world economy can go to crap if you are wrong (which did happen as well on his watch). So, how did someone who seems so unqualified to hold that office get elected....TWICE?
In watching the interview, I noticed something that I had sort of gathered previously. George W. Bush seems like a good guy, with good intentions, who means well and has a very likeable quality. That resonates with many of the voters, who are just sick and tired of the gamers and Washington insiders who seem to run the country and ruin it with special favors and backroom deals. Whether Bush is actually folksy, as he appears, or just a very good actor is debatable. I doubt any of us will really ever know which characterization is true. But, that is his image. He is just very likeable. He seems well intentioned. 
Is that enough? I would say it isn't. But that is a point for later.
Nigel Wright, by all accounts, is a very smart man who has all the right qualifications to have the position he held until Sunday morning. Being that he gave up a very lucrative and powerful career in the private sector to help his country, you have to think his intentions are honorable.
Andrew Coyne, whose article I refer to and quote extensively in this blog, has vouched for the talent and character of Wright and actually went to school at the University of Toronto's Trinity College with him.
Wright went on to earn a master's degree at Harvard University. He has run half-marathons every morning for decades, suggesting an "unbelievably strong sense of control" Wright is also involved in charity, giving both time and money to various causes such as womens' shelters and winter shelters for the homeless. He seems both competent and very well intentioned.
After graduating,  Wright went on to become a lawyer. He joined Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg and was instrumental in the success of one of the most complicated construction projects in Canadian history : the multi-billion dollar Confederation Bridge between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. He was made a partner with the firm after only five years, but didn't stay long : Onex Corporation CEO Gerry Schwartz had been impressed with Wright and took him under his wing, praising his judgement and character. He climbed the ladder at Onex, the largest private sector employer in Canada, and eventually became a managing director with the firm, securing his reputation as a Bay Street heavy hitter. 
Involved in Conservative politics from his days in college, he gravitated between the Tory and Reform parties for years, trying to draft Stephen Harper to unite the then-divided right-wing forces.He was eventually successful, and became a founding director of the Conservative Fund Canada, the party's financial arm, as well as a director of Preston Manning's think tank in Calgary. Finally, in 2010, Wright was drafted by Stephen Harper to replace Guy Giorno as his chief of staff. In accepting the position, Wright left behind a seven figure salary to become the Prime Minister's right hand man, the "elusive" Wright became one of the most powerful players in Ottawa.

(much of the above info on Wright coming directly from Wikipedia)

In late February 2013 Wright then wrote a personal cheque of $90,172 to cover past residency expenses improperly claimed by Senator Mike Duffy. A Conservative Party spokesman confirmed the money was a gift from Wright, with no expectation of repayment; Duffy used the money to repay the Government of Canada for the expenses improperly claimed. Duffy then refused to meet with independent auditors or supply financial records in relation to the subsequent investigation in the claimed expense controversy. Shortly before his resignation, the Ethics Commissioner had confirmed it was investigating Wright for his involvement with Duffy.

So, one can only ask, What possessed Wright to do such a stupid thing? Well, based on his track record, Nigel Wright is someone that always wants to help out a friend and do the right thing. That seems to be his motivation here, although it is obvious to most that it was horribly misguided and ill advised in this case. 
Was Stephen Harper behind the whole payment scandal? Likely not,  but I wouldn't put it past him. If he was, certainly Duffy and Wright are never going to say it. And that being the case, either way, he will never have to answer directly for the problem of ethics it has created. He has maintained enough arms length that the trail will go cold before it would ever lead directly back to him.
But that doesn't change the dynamics of the whole affair.
Nigel Wright and George Bush meant well. So what? Is that good enough.
Having good intentions is admirable. But does that get you a pass? Should having good intentions be enough to secure a position at the highest level of decision making, one in which your countries most important decisions are made? 

"paying a Senator under the table, for any reason, under any circumstances, is serious business. But when the recipient is under investigation by a Senate committee, when the purpose of the payment is to relieve him of responsibility for the expenses for which he is at that moment being audited, and when his benefactor is the most senior unelected official in the government, “serious” does not begin to describe it."

-Andrew Coyne 

Paying off debts of government officials for favors. Isn't that what the mafia does so they can control the government and further their illegal activities?

"it is impossible to believe that Nigel Wright, a man with two law degrees and substantial experience of both politics and business, could have been unaware of the dangers — political and legal, to his party and to himself — involved in such a transaction. Whether in fact it broke any laws, it crosses all sorts of ethical red lines that, as a matter of prudence if nothing else, anyone with any sense would wish to avoid."

-Andrew Coyne  

“The Prime Minister needs to tell us whether he thinks a secret cash deal to an embattled politician was OK,” NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said Sunday in an interview.
“He needs to tell us whether or not there was a conspiracy cooked out of his office to obstruct and perhaps interfere with a Senate investigation into misspending of taxpayers’ money,” Angus said.
Angus noted how the Conservatives initially defended the $90,000 payment. And even after it became public last week, Harper, through his spokesman, voiced his strong support for Wright

Because while Harper claims he didn't have any knowledge of the payment Wright made for Duffy, when he did know he didn't ask for Duffy's resignation nor did he say Wright did anything wrong. In fact, he fully supported him. His intentions are clear. It is okay to make highly inappropriate payments as long as he says it is okay. 

"This is what has elevated a low-level running scandal into a government-shaking crisis. There are obviously more important issues before the nation than a few senators padding their expenses. But the moment something becomes a big deal is when someone tries to conceal it — whether as a matter of stated policy, as is the case with members’ expenses in both Houses of Parliament, or via clandestine agreements such as we are told was struck between Duffy and Wright: a deal that, on its face, looks a lot like hush money."

-Andrew Coyne

 I think we all know the difference between a Richard Nixon, who was knee deep in a Watergate plan and coverup and a George W. Bush who simply was stupid enough to start a war based on information that could not be proven. Bush has even said himself that had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction, he may not have sent troops into Iraq.
George Bush, Nixon. The difference between intentions and just plain incompetence.

Even if his sense of ethics were so lax, is it plausible he would be so stupid? That he would risk his own reputation for Duffy’s? Does anyone believe, assuming the answer is no, that this was all his own work? That from that day until the story broke last week, neither the prime minister nor anyone else in the government knew? Never mind Wright. Are we to believe that Duffy told no one?

The point here is clear. It is neither okay to have good intentions but be incompetent or be competent but have bad intentions. In either case, it is not acceptable. The end result is the same. Nobody is perfect, but we must expect a much higher standard and quality of person than we currently elect. If we don't, we cannot complain when we get the results that we do. 

"We have an active and important agenda on the issues that matter to hardworking Canadian families and there is much work to be done," he said.
"When distractions arise, as they inevitably will, we will deal with them firmly."

 -Stephen Harper

Here is some advice for you, Mr. Harper. The public, who you said are hard working Canadians, don't consider this a "distraction" but think of it as ineptness on your part and possibly corruption by the people who you appointed, who we did not elect, and therefore you are responsible for. When a Senator rips off the public (one you appointed and who does extensive fundraising for your party) then a top aid of yours gives him the money to pay back the money so he can avoid a scandal (which he did not in any case, but in fact only made it worse) and that aid was also not elected, but appointed by you, then it all falls back on your lap. And we are not distracted. We are very focused on how you are handling all of this: BADLY!
In this case, it seems you don't have any good intentions, nor any competence to handle a mess you created by all the actions you took.  
At least we knew that George W was a bumbling fool. With you, we don't know if you are only just conniving and mean, or actually also not competent on top of everything else. 

"I'm very upset about the conduct we have witnessed, the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office."

-Stephen Harper

However, when the scandal first broke, that was not the tune the Prime Minister was singing. Just last Wednesday, May 15th, as the scandal was starting to come out, this was the party line and where Harper stood.

 Stephen Harper's chief of staff still enjoys the full confidence of the prime minister following revelations he wrote a $90,000 cheque to cover living expenses claimed by Senator Mike Duffy, Harper's office said today.

Only when it was apparent this was not going to go away and in fact was snowballing out of control did he make his intentions clear. Those intentions are to protect Stephen Harper's image, above all costs. If that means Senators have to take a fall, or his chief of staff must stand in front of the sword, he is more than happy to have that happen.
At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter. The result is the same and we simply should expect more from the person who holds the highest office in the country we live in. 
We certainly know his intentions, and they aren't honorable. Stephen Harper will do what it takes to look after Stephen Harper. The only question left is he actually smart enough to run the country. Based on how he has handled this incident, the answer is a resounding No.  

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