Guergis too toxic for Tories to defend

National Post

Saturday, April 10, 2010

PM’s call to RCMP suggests serious breach

Don Martin,  National Post

She wasn’t dumped for that well-documented collection of bloopers and bad behaviour. The mysterious allegations raised by the Prime Minister must be much, much worse.

Fired or “involuntarily resigned” as Secretary of State for the Status of Women yesterday, Helena Guergis was simultaneously booted from the Conservative caucus and will be forced to sit as an independent MP while a new series of allegations is investigated by the RCMP and the Ethics Commissioner.

Not since Brian Mulroney has a prime minister called in the cops on one of his own ministers. And for Stephen Harper — who is loath to demote, never mind remove — to do it, this allegation has the smell of a major breach of political or personal conduct by Ms. Guergis.

Far from ending the political feeding frenzy on her many missteps, which were already set to dominate the Commons floor next week, the unspecified nature of the allegations will give the three opposition parties new and explosive fodder to attack a government that tries hard to be squeaky clean.

It was a singular moment when Mr. Harper took to the microphone to announce a minister he had inexplicably supported for so long, an MP his own spokesman hailed for doing a “good job” on Thursday night, was abruptly forced to resign.

By referring matters to police for investigation as a criminal matter, the Prime Minister raised the stakes to a level few can recall happening before, while leaving much to vivid imaginations.

This can’t be linked to recent revelations of expense claims for clothing and handbags or that bizarre airport security temper tantrum or the fawning letter-writing campaign by her staff. Attention yesterday focused on her troubled husband Rahim Jaffer’s alleged use of a government phone, combined with allegations that he was promising to procure government grants or loans for businessmen looking for an inside track.

But while lending her government phone to her husband to conduct business may breach ethics guidelines, it would seem to fall short of behaviour worthy of a police probe.

As I said, the imagination runs wild.

Officially, Ms. Guergis was allowed to resign in a letter featuring another apology for her “hellhole” description of the Charlottetown airport, where she objected to security guards treating Herself like any other boarding passenger. None of her many other questionable activities rated a mention.

Speaking of hellholes, a woman who relished being the face proudly peering over Stephen Harper’s shoulder in Question Period television coverage will find herself on Monday pushed to the far back corner of the Commons, beside Quebec independent Andre Arthur. At least he’s a fun personality. I doubt he’ll be as impressed with her icy persona.

But even without the allegations raised but not revealed by Mr. Harper, her dismissal was needed now to distance the government from a personality who was becoming toxic to his party’s professional brand.

Her reputation was already beyond repair and, with so many more deserving women on the backbenches, the demographic reason for her occupying a seat at the Cabinet table was no longer valid.

Whisper campaigns started almost immediately after she was elevated to Cabinet in 2006 for projecting the desirable image of a young, camera-friendly woman from Central Ontario. Her prickly personality was a lousy fit for even sub-departmental duties, the whisperers said.

She projected a high opinion of her political abilities and an inflated sense of her importance to her Conservative colleagues, which quickly made her one of the most unpopular members of the caucus.

But as her behaviour deteriorated from haughty to naughty, she seemed to acquire that most dangerous of attitudes for a Conservative government — a sense of political entitlement.

Being entitled to entitlements was former Liberal Cabinet minister David Dingwall’s claim to fame, a label that stuck to the Liberals more than any other public perception. Mr. Harper could not risk that sort of taint becoming a permanent stain on his government.

Of even greater concern to Conservatives was how Ms. Guergis was hurting the government’s efforts to woo women. Having her represent the Status of Women portfolio while delivering a performance of almost constant embarrassment was threatening to derail the party’s election hopes.

Most Cabinet ousters are not happy occasions for government MPs. It’s usually the aftershock from a severe scandal, with the fallout whacking the party’s popularity in public opinion polls.

Not in this case. This dumping will deliver a morale boost to government benches weary of non-stop single-minister controversies caused by someone most of them loathed.

Ding dong, they’re shouting, Helena’s gone. The Conservative caucus couldn’t be happier.

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