6 Realities of the Duffy Trial

Senator Duffy Goes to Trial
Yesterday marked the opening day of the trial of Canada's best known suspended Senator, Mike Duffy. This 41 day trial, is gearing up to be a the highest-rated criminal trial in recent history. The media saturation coverage of their former broadcasting colleague guarantees that the trial will be a huge distraction for the electorate as the Harper government is trying to close the deal with voters in the run-up to the October election. As someone who has provided communications counsel on some political 'high profile' criminal trials (Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien) and Commissions of Inquiry (the Oliphant Commission of Inquiry into Mulroney/Schreiber), I have some thoughts on the realities of this trial.
6 Realities of the Duffy Trial
Although it's a bit of a mug's game to predict outcomes in any criminal trial - and  I certainly won't -  it is interesting to deduce what we can about the impacts and outcomes of this trial:
1. It's not a 'slam dunk' for the Crown. After the first day, it does seem pretty unlikely that Mr. Duffy can emerge from this trial without some of those charges sticking. After all, it took 13 minutes just to read the list of charges! However, it will prove difficult for the prosecution to reach the bar of 'beyond a reasonable doubt' on a number of those 31 criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Assume that half of them will be thrown over the side  as that bar will prove elusive to reach. If this were a civil suit, 'the balance of probabilities' bar would be much more achievable.
2. 'A wrinkle a day' can do more damage than one bad day. There may be no 'smoking gun' about the Prime Minister's knowledge of his former Chief of Staff Nigel Wright's cutting a cheque for $90,000. The damage will be in the form of 'a wrinkle a day' of bad news for the Harper government over the course of Mr. Duffy's carefully orchestrated defence strategy. His lawyer, Don Bayne is clearly brilliant at what he does and is positively surgical in his strategy and tactics. Expect to see numerous incisive cuts, jabs and twisting of the knife as he gives Mr. Duffy a powerful defence.
3. Stephen Harper may be the real beneficiary of the media tendency to 'overkill'.  It happened with the Rob Ford soap opera last year which triggered a backlash among voters who didn't want to hear any more about him, and they seemed to close their minds about any further criticism of Mr. Ford. It's hard to sustain 41 days of compelling interest in this story - except for the issue fanatics, commentators and journalists - who will be deeply fascinated by every twist and turn. Stephen Harper's base has already made up their mind about what they think of Mike Duffy. So the real battle is the not-so-committed voter who may - or may not - find the Duffy trial all that fascinating or may take a 'pox on all their houses' attitude to politicians.
4. Stephen Harper needs to manage public expectations. The media - and large segments of the population - expect him to be bloodied and battered by this - and if it turns out to be far less than expected, he may survive intact just by staying cool and continuing with his own agenda. That was evident yesterday when the Harper Government attempted to 'change the channel' for voters by making some pre-budget announcements. Although such news-making efforts are rarely successful at cancelling out the 'bad' news; nevertheless, watch for the Harper government to counter the trial's narrative with one of their own - heavily focused on the economy.
5. Leave the prosecution for the Crown. The Opposition Leader, Tom Mulcair, has a chance to return to his prosecutorial style of attack in Question Period throughout the Duffy trial. This will give him a chance to recover some of the ground he has lost to Justin Trudeau. He knows that Mr. Trudeau's attacks are rarely as effective as his. He must know by now that the voter rarely falls in love with the prosecutor. However, both of them have to be cautious about getting in the way of the story emerging from the Ottawa courthouse a few blocks away. If Mulcair and Trudeau get too 'hot' or outraged over the daily trial news, they will merely look partisan and ineffective. Sometimes humour is the best way to inflict some damage.

6. Why not have some fun with it? The NDP didn't waste time in poking fun at Sen. Nancy Ruth and her inopportune comments about the Auditor General daring to question her about her expense claims for breakfast on the mornings that she would be on board a plane. She told a 'scrum' of reporters, in high dudgeon that she had breakfast because she had to suffer the outrage of "cold Camembert and broken crackers". (Although the clip of her on TV pronouncing Mike Duffy 'guilty' was that much more delicious than the Camembert.)

So, yes it's fascinating to follow - even on Twitter - which is how I did it yesterday. Mr. Duffy will take a pummelling, of course. Mr. Harper will be hurt, but he will have over four months to try to recover. There will be enough pain to go around, but the greatest pain recipient will be the Senate, which has absorbed so many hits to its reputation that now an openly hostile public wants to see it eliminated.

In the meantime.....we've got the Masters this weekend....and the Senators are still alive (the hockey version that is:) so life can't be all that bad!

Until next time.....
Follow me on Twitter @mclomedia where I will be - what else? Tweeting on the trial and other matters.