The story that won’t be spun

According to a Toronto Star report from this Tuesday, there’s compelling evidence a controversial memo on NAFTA that damaged Barack…

According to a Toronto Star report from this Tuesday, there’s compelling evidence a controversial memo on NAFTA that damaged Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign came directly from the office of Canada’s prime minister.

The NAFTA memo was the object of an internal government investigation that found no one to blame for the leak.

The affair may do serious harm to cross-border relations in the event that Obama is elected while Harper still clings to power.

If the Star’s allegations are true, the Conservatives’ self-investigation looks like the worst sort of cover up, and should easily be enough on its own to drive them from power.

But the Harper government is in an enviable position. With a flaccid opposition and a complacent electorate, it has been able to shake off scandals that should have been disastrous even in a majority government, let alone in the kind of flimsy minority Harper holds.

Canada knowingly sends detainees into torture? The PM shrugs, and the story blows over. Close ties to the sleaze of the Mulroney days? Another shrug. Fiddling the books during a federal election? Bribing a dying parliamentarian? Plotting to influence a US presidential race? Interfering in Ottawa’s municipal elections?

Shrug, shrug, shrug.

For a time it seemed like there was a new scandal every week, and still the government remained untouched, their popularity at roughly the same level that brought them to power, the Liberal opposition still cringing at the threat of an election.

Enter Maxime Bernier, and the scandal that just wouldn’t go away. When the story first broke that Canada’s bumbling foreign minister had named Julie Couillard, a woman with recent ties to Canada’s biggest crime gang, as his spouse for official purposes, Harper was scathing in his response to opposition members who raised the issue of a possible security breach. He called them “gossipy old busybodies.”

Harper’s posturing was absurd, but it worked. Globe and Mail political blogger Adam Radwanski was just one of the pundits who swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, gleefully repeating “the gossipy old busybodies.”

This despite the fact that Couillard’s very recent ties were to men connected with senior members of Hells Angels, an international consortium in the narcotics and prostitution industries, with an interest in the heroin trade and criminal control over Canada’s ports.

Lest we forget, Canada is at war in Afghanistan, the source of most of the world’s poppy. Hells Angels might well have an interest in Canadian foreign policy, especially as it affects the heroin trade.

Since the Couillard story broke, opposition members have been asking the government to state whether anyone had ever expressed security concerns about the liaison, and if so, what had been done to investigate.

For days ministers refused to answer, remaining perfectly on-message: the government isn’t interested in the ex-girlfriends of cabinet ministers. By their jeers they managed to imply that the subject of a security risk never arose, surely a proposition too improbable to entertain.

Julie Couillard may be exactly as she presents herself, a respectable real estate agent who happened to go around with some bad boys.

The question is, when the government became aware of her past, did they make any effort to find out if it was indeed all in the past? And if it is, how so? Are all her old friends dead or in jail, or does she just shun them now?

Once secret cabinet documents related to Afghanistan showed up in Couillard’s hands, Bernier had to go. But countless questions remain unanswered.

What were the documents, and how can we know who read them before they found their way home? Has anyone questioned the private security company that Couillard claims found evidence of bugging in her house? What were secret documents doing at her house in the first place?

It may well be that Couillard’s connections to organized crime are all broken, that Bernier was never the subject of espionage, that national security was never breached.

If so, the government should have been able to say so the first time the subject was raised. Instead, the Conservatives stonewalled, derided the opposition, and insisted there was no security issue, when clearly there was.

Why pretend? Why cover up? Are they still hiding something? Or are they just trying to let an embarrassing story die?

Harper has protected Bernier in the past to shore up his party’s support in Quebec. Did he just blindly keep protecting him for a few days too long this time?

Is this yet another sudden squall that will blow over in a week or two, or will the Liberals smell blood in the water, and take this one to the voters? And the biggest question of all: has Stephen Harper finally run up against the scandal that won’t shrug off?

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