a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interesting attempt to defuse Jaffer scandal

One difference between the Guergis/Jaffer affair and other political scandals is that the government seems to be playing a dual role of accuser and defender.

Last Friday, Environment Minister Jim Prentice rose in the House of Commons to disclose that former Tory MP Rahim Jaffer had made representations on behalf of a private company to one of his aides. By implication, Jaffer was working as lobbyist even though he is not registered in the federal registrar of lobbyists.

Subsequently, Prentice disclosed in the Commons on Monday that those representations were made by Jaffer to the environment minister's aide in the office of Helena Guergis, Jaffer's spouse and status of women minister at the time.

Earlier last week, Jaffer and his business partner had to endure aggressively hostile Commons committee questioning from his former caucus colleagues.

At that hearing, Jaffer said he hardly ever was in the office of his spouse after he was defeated in the 2008 election and certainly did not do any lobbying there. In fact, Jaffer denied doing any lobbying under the definition set out in federal legislation.

Thanks to the minister of environment, Jaffer will have some explaining to do.

Whenever the government is attacked by the Opposition in this affair, it goes on the defensive by reminding us that the Prime Minister turned over allegations against Guergis to the RCMP and the Commons Ethics Commissioner.

So on one hand, the government has likely sunk Jaffer. On the other hand, it is vigorously defending its actions in this three-week affair. It is plaintiff and defendant in the court of public opinion at the same time.

In the short term, the dual strategy makes sense. By making a target of its former caucus chairman, the government is trying to keep the focus on Jaffer in much the way one tries to localize an infection.

So far, the government's strategy may be working because the Jaffer/Guergis affair has yet to have a major impact on any party's standing in the polls.

That may be because Canadians are disillusioned with politics in general. But it may also be because the government has been able to keep the daily narrative focused on Jaffer rather than the government's actions.

In the long-term, the Tories may still pay a price. This was a government that was elected on an ethics platform. Its first major piece of legislation was the Federal Accountability Act, which was supposed to clean up Ottawa and open the place to scrutiny.

In fairness, Jaffer may be innocent of illegal activity. There are loopholes in the legislation that allow lobbying without registration.

However, most voters won't notice legislative nuances and could decide over time that nothing has changed in Ottawa since the Conservatives were elected in 2006. That makes the government's strategy very risky.

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