Tuesday, June 14, 2005

It was all about Belinda

It is important, I think, that we not underestimate the effect of the Belinda bombshell on the Grewal episode. It helps explain, I think, several bizarre facts. First, why is it that the taping of meetings begins on the 17th? Why was there no tape of pizza date? (Grewal did, of course, tape calls from Kalia--but I'm guessing that Grewal had a practice of taping all phone calls, as some people do.) Second, why did the conservatives ever let the Grewal tapes become public?

First, the taping. What was different about the morning of the 17th, when Grewal seems to have started taping? Just a few hours before Grewal's meeting with Dosanjh and Murphy came one of the biggest surprises in Canadian history: Belinda announced that she was crossing the floor and not just becoming a Liberal, but joining cabinet with an important portfolio.

Why was this relevant? One thing that should probably assume is that in the discussions over pizza with Dosanjh the night before Grewal had been told that there was no chance of a cabinet seat for crossing the floor. Scott Brison was presumably the example--he is brought up several times in the conversation here and in subsequent phone calls. Brison had had to wait--and had only been made a parliamentary secretary once he was brought into the inner circle. The message, then, was that th best Grewal could hope for was (after an unspecificed interval) a position as parliamentary secretary. But only a few hours after Dosanjh had said this to Grewal, the rug was being pulled from under his feet. Belinda crossed and the Liberals had brought her into the cabinet immediately. Grewal expected no less. Indeed, he said as much. Belinda's defection, he pointed out, meant that the Liberals could no longer say that things couldn't happen right away:
UD: . . .I think this (Belinda's crossing the floor) has made it easier for you . . .(inaudible)
GG: Yes, that is true. But two things have become clear because of this.
UD: . . infact. . ..huh?
GG: Two things have become clear. One is it's easier, and the second is they can't say that we will do something later, because they have done right away, for her.
Now, this is one of the most difficult passages in the transcripts, and different Punjabi speakers have claimed to hear diametrically opposite things in the lines that follow (see here). All agree, however, that Grewal can be heard pointing out that the Liberals had done something 'for her' (which in this context, must mean Belinda). (Unsurprisingly, this line has been left out of both Conservative translations/transcripts.)

Why, then, did Grewal only begin taping on the morning of the 17th? Because the Belinda announcement had made a liar out of Dosanjh. He had said that an immediate cabinet post was impossible. But only 12 hours after that conversation, Belinda had been given such a post. Grewal no longer trusted Dosanjh and taped the conversation as a back-up.

Another of the answered questions about the Grewal affair is why Harper (or his agents) decided to go public with Grewal's allegations. The tapes are embarassing for the Liberals, but bringing the matter forward also had dangers for the Conservatives, not least because no one much likes the idea of people going around surreptiously taping conversations. It's seedy and dishonest.

It is also important to remember that in the ordinary run of parliamentary affairs we don't hear every embarassing goodie that the Conservatives know about the Liberals or vice versa. Parties pick and choose and decide what is useful and what is not. They also have choices about how to disseminate--leaks, press releases, press conferences, and so forth.

The Conservatives decided to have a full blown press conference and a prepared 8-minute version of the Grewal-Murphy meeting. Why did they choose to do this? In hind-sight, wouldn't it have been better to have let the whole thing die?

Again, I think it's important to remember the specific context. The Belinda defection had done a lot of damage to the conservatives: for all her many flaws, Stronach is an attractive, successful, modern, urban woman. As a prominent member of the Conservative front bench, she was useful to the party as a means to broaden the conservative appeal in key demographics. Just having her sit there was a way of saying to career women that the Conservative party had room for people like Stronach. Stronach's change of parties, however, threatened to undo any gains that the Conservatives had made on this front. Her defection became a powerful statement that the Conservative Party is not a comfortable home for the modern woman.

The Conservatives needed to do two things. Their first problem was they needed to change the subject. Get Belinda off the front-page. Second they needed to reframe the Stronach defection.

Grewal's press conference helped with both these. First, it moved Belinda off the front page and put Grewal there. Second, his version of the events--which the eventual release of the full, unaltered tapes has revealed to be untrue--helped with the reframing. He claimed he was offered a cabinet post; Stronach actually got a cabinet post. This allowed the Belinda-crossing to be reframed from 'moderate woman feels uncomfortable amongst the Conservatives' to 'ambitious woman sold her political allegiance for a high price'. Others can debate about which of these two versions is true--though I point out that these are not mutually exclusive possibilities--my point here is that each side had its own spin, and the Conservatives went public with the Grewal tapes because they thought it would help them re-establish their spin. (Had Grewal actually crossed the floor, of course, we would have had a different version of the spin--the Liberals claiming that this showed that minorities felt uncomfortable in the Conservative Party, while the Conservatives claimed Grewal's ambitions had led him to sell out.)

Grewal's version fit well with what Conservative tactical priorities were on the 18th May and so they ran with it.

In hind-sight, of course, this was a mistake. I'm reminded of the film 'The Verdict', in which Paul Newman plays a washed up, alcoholic lawyer who has the case of his life-time that he is screwing up until he learns 'never ask a question that you don't know the answer to'. This was, I think, where the Conservatives went wrong with the Grewal affair. They let the tapes become public without knowing ahead of time everything that was in the tapes. Grewal mislead them as much as he mislead anyone.

[revised and merged with an earlier post]


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