By Peter Globensky
For The Chronicle-Journal
I would not want to be in Ray Novak’s shoes — the prime minister’s 14th and current chief of staff. Although never as beleaguered, I was where Ray Novak is. In the 1980s I was chief of staff to the minister of external relations and international development. Seconded from the Privy Council Office, I also served as a senior policy adviser on aboriginal affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister.
Although trained as a public servant and diplomat, I very quickly learned the essentials of serving a minister and prime minister. Simplistic as they may sound, there were three indispensable rules that guided our guiding of the ministers.
First, to the extent of your power (which is often considerable) control the agenda, define how it will play out and create and orchestrate the communications strategy. If your minister is going to actively gut environmental protection legislation that you know will raise the ire of many Canadians, you defend the “reforms” as a vital step in ensuring that industry should not be needlessly impeded in their efforts to create “sustainable” jobs.
Second, do what is necessary to make your boss look good and deflect or actively repel all and anything which may be politically disparaging or damaging. The oft’ used “Let me be clear” approach provides the opportunity to ward off suspected criticism, sidetrack the issue raised and “present” a corrected version of events or interpretations all designed to demonstrate that the boss is clearly on top of his or her game.
Finally, and most important is the inviolate rule that your prime minister or minister be protected by the perception of “plausible deniability.” In its political context, especially in the PMO where the concept assumes the status of doctrine if not dogma, plausible deniability is the ability for a prime minister to deny knowledge of, or any responsibility for any potentially politically damaging activities committed by those in his inner circle of advisers. The key to the use of plausible deniability by the prime minister is to ensure a complete lack of evidence that can confirm his participation in or knowledge of an action or event.
Think of an impenetrable buffer-zone of protection.
This lack of direct evidence then makes the denial of knowledge of, or participation in the action or event not only plausible, but credible — due to the general good will of Canadians to want to believe their leaders coupled with the intimidating awe with which the Office of Prime Minister is held.
As the popular on-line Wikipedia goes on to state, “In the case that illegal or otherwise disreputable and unpopular activities become public, a high-ranking official (the prime minister in this case — italics my own) may deny any awareness of such act in order to insulate himself and shift blame onto the agents who carried out the acts, confident that their doubters will be unable to prove otherwise.”
The PMO doctrine of plausible deniability, although never mentioned in the bribery and corruption trial of Senator Duffy, has been central to the major sub-plot of this trial, the critical issue on the minds of most thinking Canadians. Despite his persistent denial of having any knowledge of and/or authorizing the face-saving payment of $90,000 to the disgraced senator by his then chief of staff Nigel Wright, the questions now straining the patience of these same Canadians are: “What did Stephen Harper know and when did he know it?”
Despite all the denials, the manoeuvring, the strategies of avoidance, attempted cover-ups, and audit-diddling (see rules one and two above), we now know from testimony under oath at the Duffy trial that a number of political operatives in the PMO knew of the payment which Mr. Wright was about to execute. That included Harper’s sometime resident house-guest, closest confident, and now chief of staff Ray Novak.
With a prime minister known for centralizing power and authority and refurbishing PMO into an uber command-and-control bunker, Harper’s denials are beginning to ring hollow. But don’t take it from me. It is better said by current Conservative party campaign spokesman and Harper’s former director of communications in PMO, Kory Teneycke who stated that it was “unfathomable” that Ray Novak would know about the payment and not tell the prime minister.
It is evident that the prime minister’s plausible deniability is quickly becoming . . . well, increasingly implausible. Let me be clear — if I may borrow a phrase — it is now Stephen Harper who is on trial in the Canadian court of public opinion and while the jury is still out, the coming verdict from that court seems to be more than apparent!
Peter Globensky retired as the chief executive officer of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. From 1984 to 1989, he served three ministers and the prime minister in the Mulroney government.