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November 28, 2013

PMO still in 'plausible deniability' mode

Geoffrey Stevens

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Let's talk today about "plausible deniability." The term apparently originated in the 1960s and referred at that time to CIA "black" operations.

It means that persons in power are to be protected from knowledge about illegal, unethical, immoral or politically damaging activities so that they may deny (without actually lying) having sanctioned these activities — because, you see, they didn't know about them.

It's a form of deception. If the denials hold, they are deemed to be plausible. If they don't, the denier-in-chief will be accused of orchestrating a coverup. That's what happened with Watergate; it was the coverup rather than the "third-rate burglary" that brought down Richard Nixon. And it's where we are now with the Senate expense scandal.

In money terms, it is very much a third-rate scandal. But the coverup is leading ever deeper into the most important office in the land, the Prime Minister's Office, where Stephen Harper is still in plausible-denial mode. He says knew nothing about the infamous $90,000 cheque that Nigel Wright, his chief of staff, wrote to Mike Duffy. Or almost nothing. Or not enough to piece together what was going on in his office or in the Senate — even though roughly a dozen people in his entourage seemed to know.

Yes, he knew there was a Senate problem, because Duffy had told him about it. He knew Wright was trying to deal with it. He almost certainly knew about an earlier plan to use about $32,000 in Conservative party funds to bail Duffy out, because Nigel Wright says he briefed Harper on that, and, he says, got the PM's go-ahead.

When that plan failed — after the amount climbed to $90,000 — did Harper know that Wright was going to use his personal funds for Duffy? Perhaps he didn't; we don't know yet. We do know that Harper trusted Wright to make the problem go away. That's what loyal lieutenants are meant to do. And if the problem doesn't go away, the lieutenant is expected to fall on his sword. As he did.

Although they have not laid charges against anyone, the RCMP documents released last week allege Wright committed bribery, fraud and breach of trust. But some legal experts think the Mounties are over-reaching. The Criminal Code, they say, requires evidence of corrupt intent. But was Wright acting corruptly, or was he simply trying on behalf of his boss to make a political problem go away? The law also says a benefit must be involved. There may have been a benefit to Duffy, but not to Wright who kissed goodbye to $90,000, knowing he would never see it again.

In last week's column, I advanced the hypothesis that the Conservatives would get re-elected in 2015 if they kept the government focused on economic recovery. That generated two types of reader response, both negative. In the first, readers argued the Senate scandal has caused irreparable damage to the Harper brand, that the prime minister has painted himself into a corner from which he cannot escape. As these readers see it, the Tories might manage to return with a minority, but probably not.

According to the second school of thought, none of this matters, because Harper will be gone before the end of 2014. He's not likely to be forced out by his caucus, although discontent is growing. More likely Harper himself will decide that eight years (which it will be in January) is enough, that the chances of another majority are too slim to be worth the risk, and that a smart leader would get out while he is still on top and before forces that he cannot control — auditors, police, courts, opposition parties and the media — can do him further damage over the Senate scandal.

I'm not convinced by either school of thought. Instead, let's give the last word to Nigel Wright, who predicted in one of his emails: "I think that this is going to end badly." Yep.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at .

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