a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's not the scandal that does you in, it's how you manage it

Quick now, what do Tiger Woods and Stephen Harper have in common? (No it is not serial adultery.)

Both men must now deal with unnecessary damage caused by poor scandal management.

Tiger's mistake in not owning up to his "transgressions" soon after his early morning car accident have been well publicized and there is no point repeating them here. Harper's mistakes are a little more complicated.

The Afghan detainee scandal, which has put the government and opposition on a collision course toward a parliamentary crisis in the New Year, broke when Harper was out of the country. Perhaps Harper's major mistake in this affair was leaving Defence Minister Peter MacKay in charge on this file.

In previous scandals like the Chuck Cadmen affair, the Tories have been able to bully and bulldoze their way through them until media interest died. MacKay likely thought he could do the same by claiming there has been no tangible proof any Afghans detained by Canadian forces have been tortured. He also said senior diplomat Richard Colvin had become a Taliban dupe by even suggesting such a thing in testimony before a special Commons committee.

The problem with the bulldoze-and-bully technique is that the Opposition gets a little smarter every time you kick sand in its face. The Opposition-controlled committee led by Liberal Ujjal Dosangh and New Democrat Paul Dewar were able to keep the narrative moving despite a blitzkrieg of government stonewall tactics.

Last week the Opposition got two very lucky breaks. First, several dozen retired ambassadors rebuked (quite rightly) MacKay for trying to demonize and destroy a civil servant who could not fight back. Then Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk corrected himself and acknowledged prisoners detained by Canadians had indeed been tortured after they were turned over to Afghan authorities.

At the moment it is a matter of speculation whether Natynczyk simply decided to do the right thing or roll over on the government before it decides to pin the blame on someone for the mess it is now in.

Regardless of motive, the Opposition clearly has the upper hand in this affair.

MacKay so far is the major casualty. His initial claim of there being no proof of torture was risky at best since there have been numerous published reports of such a thing coming out of Afghanistan for two years.

Trying to demonize a civil servant in public is regarded by Ottawa insiders as something akin to shooting Bambi. And if you must take the risk of shooting Bambi make bloody sure you score a kill shot.

Harper won't dump MacKay from cabinet simply because the public won't demand it. However, MacKay has made some serious career limiting mistakes and may have to be moved from Defence in a cabinet shuffle.

Things are now oh-so-different from the end of October when the Tories were heading to majority territory in the polls and Canadians were actually starting to like the Prime Minister.

The torture scandal may not put the Liberals ahead in the polls. But it will most certainly rob the government of the momentum it had been enjoying.

If the government continues to be embarrassed by contradictory disclosures on this file, watch for it to prorogue Parliament for the second time in a year. Only this time it won't have to go groveling to the Governor General.

The Prime Minister can simply decide there will be a Throne Speech, a new Parliament and possibly a reconfigured cabinet after Christmas -- all to give things a fresh start and of course to change an increasingly ugly channel.

No comments:

Post a Comment