Harper too quick to throw Guergis over side

The PM has a habit of pushing the panic button under pressure

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The Gazette, Sunday, April 18, 2010

Stephen Harper has a history of pushing the panic button under pressure, and throwing inconvenient people under the bus.

Such was the case with Brian Mulroney in November 2007, when the prime minister spontaneously told an Ottawa news conference that given the accusations made in an affidavit by Karlheinz Schreiber, it would be inappropriate for him or members of his government to have any contact with the former PM until the matter was cleared up. Among those surprised to hear Harper say that were senior members of his own staff who later conceded privately that he had gone beyond his brief.

It's also proving to be the case with what the prime minister called "serious allegations" of misconduct against Helena Guergis, whom he dumped as a junior minister and kicked out of the Conservative caucus pending reports from the ethics commissioner and the RCMP.

Well, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, one of the most respected public officials in Ottawa, has already said that based on what she's seen, there are no grounds to investigate Guergis. By the weekend, the RCMP had still made no comment, a week after it received the referral, leaving Guergis a victim of wild rumours and innuendo about everything from drugs to offshore bank accounts.

The cops might also be looking into the background of the tipster, a Toronto private eye named John Derrick Snowdy, who was trailing a guy named Nazim Gillani, named by the Toronto Star as hosting a dinner for Guergis's husband Rahim Jaffer, in the presence of ladies of the evening, or "busty hookers" as the paper put it in its scoop on what the former Conservative MP was doing on the night he was busted for drunk driving and possession of cocaine. The charges were later reduced to a plea for speeding because, as the CBC reported, Jaffer wasn't allowed to speak to his lawyer before submitting to a breathalyzer test, and was later strip-searched. In other words, the case was tainted, and both the crown and the Ontario government knew it.

The original Star piece was published the day before Harper fired Guergis, and was clearly the trigger for a call between Snowdy and Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton. Whatever it was Snowdy told Hamilton, it was enough for him to call the Prime Minister's Office. When the party's own lawyer calls the PMO in a panic, that would be enough to engage chief of staff Guy Giorno and in this case, the prime minister himself. Harper called a news conference to announce the sacking of Guergis, and calling in the cops on allegations he himself called "serious" while refusing further comment.

But what if the accusations against Guergis turned out to be nothing more than second- hand gossip, some of which has been retailed by the Ottawa press gallery in one of its periodic feeding frenzies? And it turns out that Snowdy is a guy with money problems after a bankruptcy left him owning the Canada Revenue Agency some $2 million.

As for Nazim Gillani, he turns out to be the sort of guy Jaffer should have known better than to be hanging with. It wasn't just the hookers, it was the conversation. Gillani was looking for access, and boasted in an email that Jaffer offered a way into the PMO. Gillani was either hallucinating or knew nothing of the way Harper's Ottawa works. This PMO doesn't talk to anyone, and Jaffer has been in Harper's bad books since he became the lone Conservative MP to lose his seat in Alberta in the 2008 election.

Jaffer has been known as a hunk, and before he met Guergis, was also known as a hard partier. But he was never known for his work ethic, and losing a seat in Alberta, to the NDP at that, was a fatal blow to his political career. He has remained in Ottawa as a consultant, never registering as a lobbyist, even though his firm might have sought government grants for "green" projects. It appears he used a BlackBerry issued by his wife's office - apparently ministers receive four smart phones each, and family members as well as staff may receive them. Her former government driver said he often drove Jaffer around Ottawa, a not uncommon occurrence among ministerial spouses.

There's clearly some bad judgment involved here on Jaffer's part, as well as some bad temper in Guergis's meltdown at airport security in Charlottetown. But it also turns out she recently suffered a miscarriage, which might have affected her behaviour, as inexcusable as it was. She also has a reputation for being hard on staff, and as a former staffer herself, she should know better. But that's no reason to call in the cops.

A couple that seemed to have a promising future have become a poster couple for inappropriate behaviour, and there is no sympathy for either Guergis or Jaffer in the Conservative caucus.

But there's a larger issue here, the presumption of innocence, which has been thrown under the bus along with them. And for that, the prime minister bears a responsibility of his own.

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