a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How not to manage a scandal

If there is ever a university course on scandal management, the Guergis/Jaffer affair would make a great case study.

Ottawa's handling of this episode is a fine demonstration of what not to do. In fact, the government's strategy and tactics appear to have backfired.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked Helena Guergis out of cabinet and the government caucus on April 9, citing accusations of a criminal nature that were being turned over to the RCMP and the parliamentary ethics officer.

Since Guergis had been a embarrassing thorn in Harper's side, most of us expected her to disappear into history quickly. Six weeks later she is still a thorn in Harper's side.

Harper didn't say what those accusations were at the time. Since then the government has only acknowledged they came from a third party who turned out to be a Toronto private detective.

That private detective testified before MPs last week that he had no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by Guergis or her husband, former MP Rahim Jaffer. In fact, the private eye testified he was misquoted in a letter to Mary Dawson, the ethics officer, by Guy Giorno, Harper's chief of staff.

And in a recent CBC-TV interview with Peter Mansbridge, Guergis broke into tears after claiming the allegations have never been made clear to her. Nor has she heard anything from the RCMP. It was a convincing performance.

As a professional politician, Guergis knows how to play an audience. However, the private detective's testimony, or lack of it, appears to back her up.

In addition, the government's response has been rather weak. It now says it has other sources of allegations against the former junior cabinet minister in much the same way the security bureaucracy kept saying Maher Arar was a dangerous person without saying why.

It took a royal commission to establish that suspicions about Arar were groundless. What will it take to get to the bottom of the unknown allegations against Guergis?

Parliament is not sitting this week and lucky for the government. Otherwise the Prime Minister would have to explain why he kicked Guergis out of caucus while allowing an Alberta Conservative who is under RCMP investigation for mortgage fraud to stay.

As a minister, Guergis stayed in the cabinet at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. So why all the histrionics to remove her? And why expel her from caucus?

Guergis is looking more and more like a victim, while the government is looking more and more conspiratorial. Did the government grab the first excuse that came by to get rid of a hapless minister rather than admit the mistake of keeping her in cabinet for as long as it did?

The accuser is becoming the accused.

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