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After tough 2013, Harper and team focus on election horizon

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a closing press conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Tuesday, October 8, 2013. Even by the traditionally rough-and-tumble standards pf parliamentary Ottawa, Harper has had a difficult year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
December 18, 2013 - 10:42 AM

OTTAWA - For a hint of just how much turmoil Stephen Harper has experienced in 2013, his official Twitter account is not a bad place to start.

In January, @pmharper tweeted a "Day in the Life," a behind-the-scenes look at his work day through pictures and video.

Only a few people get multiple cameos — former chief of staff Nigel Wright is one of them. In an early photo, Wright appears to lead a morning meeting with senior staff, and in a second talks to Harper at the end of the day under the title "Debriefing with Nigel."

Another tweet features then Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton, talking to Harper just before question period.

Both those figures are now gone from their positions, swept up in the Senate expenses scandal that has sucked up most of the political energy in Ottawa this year. A few weeks after that successful social media experiment, the seeds of the future controversy were being sown by Wright and others around Harper.

"I think that this is going to end badly," Wright commented in an email to another staff member about Duffy, only a week after the Day in the Life tweets.

It was the start of a difficult "year in the life" of Harper.

Wright was indeed important in Harper's daily routine — particularly at that juncture in January.

It was Wright who helped navigate the government through the sensitive negotiations with First Nations leaders in the midst of the Idle No More movement. A deal was reached to conduct high-level treaty talks, and Attawapiskat's Chief Theresa Spence later ended a high-profile hunger strike.

There were other bright moments. The new Office of Religious Freedom opened in February, fulfilling an election promise to promote religious tolerance globally.

But even as the negotiations to have Duffy repay his $90,000 worth of living expenses dragged on behind closed doors, there were other challenges that erupted more publicly.

Backbench MPs began to squawk about the controls exerted over their statements in the Commons. A dozen MPs spoke up to argue that only the speaker should determine the order and content of statements before and during question period.

"I want to say that I too feel that my rights have been infringed on by members of the party because I am not allowed to speak on certain topics...," complained Alberta MP Leon Benoit.

MP Brent Rathgeber ultimately decided he couldn't live within the highly controlled atmosphere of the Conservative caucus under Harper, and quit to sit as an independent in June.

That desire for increased parliamentary autonomy lives on, now embodied in the Reform Act of 2013, a private member's bill tabled this month by well regarded Tory MP Michael Chong.

Another political and personal setback for Harper came in May with the death of former campaign guru and key advisor Doug Finley. Finley was one of the more seasoned political hands around Harper.

"Our government has lost a trusted adviser and strategist. Canada has lost a fine public servant," Harper said at the time. "I have lost a dear and valued friend."

Within a few weeks of Finley's passing, Harper was to lose Wright's counsel too.

The details of Wright's personal repayment of Duffy's expenses hit the political scene like a bomb, and the reverberations have still not subsided six months later. Wright resigned, maintaining to this day that he acted in the public interest.

"I think he had the opportunity when he spoke to the caucus, that was the opportunity where a lot of this quite possibly could have been put to rest," said former deputy chief of staff Keith Beardsley, referring to a speech Harper delivered to Tory MPs in late May.

"Assuming he knew at that point all the details that we know now, it's quite conceivable that he didn't, but I think that was the opportunity and it didn't happen, and we are where we are now."

A possible respite from the story was supposed to come in the form of a party convention in late June, where Harper was to make a major speech launching the second-half of his government's mandate. The catastrophic spring flooding in Alberta knocked that off the schedule.

The focus then transferred to a cabinet shuffle. Harper kept many of the more experience ministers in the top jobs — John Baird, Jason Kenney, James Moore. He put a raft of younger faces in the more junior posts.

Attention to the changes melted away as quickly as a popsicle at the cottage.

Finally, the Speech from the Throne was billed as the fresh chapter for the government. It detailed a new "consumers first" push, dangling the prospect of pick-and-pay cable. There were promises of anti-online bullying legislation, and most of all the hint of a major trade victory to come shortly afterward — the Canada-European Union trade deal.

All this, unfortunately for Harper, would be overshadowed by the Senate matter. Only a day after the speech, his new leader in the upper chamber breathed life into the story by announcing motions to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau.

That in turn paved the way for blockbuster speeches in the chamber by the trio.

"They have no moral compass," Duffy said of Conservative operatives. "Oh, they talk a great game about integrity, but, in my experience, they demonstrate every day that they do not understand the meaning of the phrase 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."'

An RCMP affidavit filed in court in November, featuring the emails of Wright and others inside Harper's inner circle discussing the Duffy affair, gave the scandal its third act of 2013.

If Harper were to reprise his Twitter adventure of a year ago, the picture of his morning meeting would have some important differences.

His chief of staff is now Ray Novak, his loyal longtime aide. Campaign manager Jenni Byrne is back in the PMO as Novak's deputy. Dimitri Soudas, Harper's former communications chief, is the recently named executive director of the Conservative Party of Canada.

All of this has the early markings of a campaign team preparing for a transition year.

Soudas in particular will need to navigate the party through a number of minefields, including the first time since 2004 that incumbent MPs will be truly challenged in open nomination battles. A number of new and reconfigured ridings entails work to be done founding and refounding riding associations, and finding suitable candidates.

There's also the matter of keeping the coffers full.

"Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have made fundraising their top priority, and they are working hard to close the gap. We cannot let that happen," party president John Walsh wrote to members last week.

"Our party can only win the next election if we keep our fundraising advantage and the 2015 election is right around the corner. If we want to win, we need to get ready now."

Harper's message, meanwhile, is expected to be much the same as it has been. The government is emphasizing its fiscal record, and the fact it is on track to pay down the deficit by 2015.

"The core proposition that the prime minister's selling and taking forward to the Canadian people is not going to be much different in 2014 as it was in 2011, which is stability, strength and principled leadership," said Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer.

"I think those things will be the buzzwords."

Still, there is the potential for the unforeseen landmine, if 2013 was any indication.

The RCMP have not yet laid any charges, and investigators are still busy pulling documents to build their cases. More juicy affidavits are likely to come. As Harper's favourite band The Beatles once sang, "I read the news today, oh boy."

Harper may well look wistfully upon his Twitter "Day in the Life" of January 28, 2013 as the calm before a long storm.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

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