Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

That noxious odour is wafting from the PMO

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Nigel Wright is the third chief of staff to resign from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office in five years. At the same point in his tenure, Jean Chr©tien still had his first one. Brian Mulroney was on his second. Parliamentary pundits have written off Wright, a Harvard-educated lawyer and corporate executive, as the latest victim of the spreading scandal over Senate expenses.

But both Wright's departure and the Senate scandal look like symptoms -- not the source -- of the malaise that grips the nation's capital. There is something toxic in the Ottawa air.

It warps the values of outsiders who get too close to the centre of power. It drives away principled conservatives such as Jim Prentice and Lee Richardson. It chokes off public debate. And it corrodes the institutions of government -- from Foreign Affairs to the National Energy Board.

The only people who appear inured to it are veterans of the Mike Harris government of Ontario (John Baird, Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement); Harper loyalists with no experience of anything else (Jason Kenney, Jim Moore) and hyper-partisans (Pierre Polievre, Joe Oliver). Other Conservative MPs are mute.

Experienced political analysts shake their heads, unable to penetrate the secrecy or the values of the government.

Wright was a man of integrity, according to his business associates. He was a deal-maker, to be sure, but one who knew better than to cross ethical lines or make reckless decisions. At Harper's behest, he took a two-year leave of absence from his job as managing director of private equity firm Onex -- and a huge salary cut -- to run the Prime Minister's Office. "I came to Ottawa to do my part in providing good government for Canada."

No one can explain the lapse of judgment that prompted him to write a personal cheque for $90,172.24 to pay off Sen. Mike Duffy's improperly claimed housing expenses. Was he helping out an acquaintance in financial difficulty? That seems implausible, given the tenuousness of the relationship. Did he think an under-the-table deal of that magnitude would stay secret? Did he throw prudence to the winds after spending 20 years cultivating a reputation for brilliance tempered with caution?

Similarly, no one who knew Duffy in his days as a reporter on Parliament Hill can explain his overweening sense of entitlement. "The Duffster" certainly enjoyed the perks that came with his rising profile as a TV personality and Ottawa editor of CTV News. But he knew right from wrong. He would have made mincemeat of a senator who ran up $90,000 in improper housing and electioneering expenses.

How could he fail to understand what "primary residence" means? How could Duffy imagine he would get away with a lie about who repaid the money?

Most of the characters in this sordid saga -- Sen. Pamela Wallin, who has resigned from the Conservative caucus pending an audit of her $321,000 in travel expenses; Government Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton, whose tenure dates back to John Diefenbaker; Andrew MacDougall, Harper's embattled communications director (his seventh) and Ray Novak, his new chief of staff -- are or were decent people. But they live in a moral quagmire. They operate in a milieu where bending rules, covering up and deflecting blame are normal.

Harper's aides are scrambling to protect him from the escalating Senate scandal. But that is not the problem; it is the noxious odour emanating from the Prime Minister's Office.


Carol Goar is a Toronto Star columnist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2013 A10

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