It’s a good thing for Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he’s been out of the country.
Last weekend, in an apparent attempt to distance himself from whatever was about to emerge at the trial of disgraced Senator Mike Duffy, the Conservative leader took off for Iraq and Kuwait.
He ostensibly made the surprise trip to bolster the troops there who are training Kurdish fighters. However, to more cynical political observers, the visit was a blatant attempt to win back military support after last year’s brutal budget cuts to veterans services and benefits. But really? It was all about the photo ops, the stage-managed appearances before the red maple leaf blazing behind fighter jets carefully arranged nose-to-nose just so.
All of which gave credence to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s flip remark during last fall’s parliamentary debate on the mission: that Harper was just “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show [ISIL] how big they are”.
But Harper ended up being shot down. That’s because his personal video entourage, who produce promotional reports called “24 Seven” at the taxpayers’ expense, took images that revealed the troops’ faces. That despite the prime minister’s office (PMO) receiving at least two separate briefings on security measures prohibiting exactly that.
Still, the government claimed that the two videos it had posted on Harper’s webpage had been vetted by the defence department – except that they hadn’t. Nobody in the Canadian Armed Forces had ever previewed them. And so, the videos were vapourised, the government was embarrassed and a PMO spokesperson apologised.
Then there was the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian-born man captured at age 15 in Afghanistan and imprisoned for nearly half his life at Guantanamo Bay. In 2012, he was finally repatriated to Canada after pleading guilty in 2010 before a US military tribunal to five war crimes. Sentenced to eight years to be served in Canada, he won bail late last month in an Alberta court.
Khadr’s appearance put the lie to the Harper government myth of the cut-throat, murderous terrorist, the political football they kick around as they play to their base in their terrorists-under-every-bed tactics.
The Harper government, which trots out Khadr as the very scary model of a terrorist, going so far as to bar media access to him, did everything it could to fight his release – as expected. It announced an appeal of the bail decision and then, when it seemed that the proceedings couldn’t be stopped, tried for a stay.
But, on Thursday, Khadr won his freedom on strict conditions and emerged before a horde of reporters. Social media exploded with Canadians’ overwhelmingly favourable reactions to his charisma and humble demeanour, with many remarking on how Khadr’s appearance put the lie to the Harper government myth of the cut-throat, murderous terrorist, the political football they kick around as they play to their base in their terrorists-under-every-bed tactics.
The week grew worse still.
Damaging evidence was being produced in the Ottawa courtroom where Duffy, a former Canadian TV star, is facing 31 charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud related to his living and travel expenses.
Conservative MPs were called to testify that taxpayers were subsidising party fundraising efforts by flying Duffy around the country. Even more detrimental to the PMO were revelations of emails exchanged between Harper’s most trusted senate appointees and his top staffers documenting attempts to alter an audit report and conceal its findings.
“This is pure Richard Nixon,” charged opposition leader Tom Mulcair of the New Democratic Party (NDP). “The cover up was orchestrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
To those following the trial, it now seems most unlikely that Harper can continue to profess ignorance of the goings-on in his own party, not to mention his office, related to the Duffy scandal.
Probably the week’s most stinging blow came from Harper’s home province of Alberta where, on Tuesday, in a stunning election upset, the provincial NDP won a majority, toppling a 44-year reign by the Conservatives.
Only winning an international hockey game would make Canadians more jubilant than they were on Twitter on Tuesday night. The “Orange Crush”, named for the NDP colours, had rolled over tar sands country, hard hit by the tanking price of oil, right in the Harper heartland.
Resource sector shares immediately dropped. Newly elected premier Rachel Notley had promised to terminate government support for the Northern Gateway pipeline to the British Columbia coast, and the Keystone XL pipeline to the Texas Gulf coast, two projects that have been the centrepiece of the Harper government’s economic strategy. She also discussed raising the royalties that resource companies pay to the public treasury, royalties that are reportedly the lowest in the world.
In the aftermath, while Harper was not yet back from celebrating VE Day in Holland, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay emerged from the Conservative caucus room in Ottawa to a media scrum.
Asked what the mood inside was like, he replied: “It was more like a morgue. Someone said it was like – it’s Albertastan now.”
Whether an NDP win in Alberta signals a Conservative defeat in Canada is fodder for the analysts. But the immediate question is, how will Harper recover from the week’s setbacks – and how many more will spin off from them?
When the prime minister returns from his travels, he may find that the political chickens have come home to roost.
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.