As the threat of a cabinet shuffle looms, weaker ministers can look to Public Works Minister Alfonso Gagliano for wisdom on how to prevent being moved out of their portfolios. While this may seem perverse to ordinary thinking people, Gagliano knows that the best way to safeguard one's status in the ChrÃ©tien government is to be involved in a patronage scandal. Ordinary screw-ups or incompetence -- such as International Cooperation Maria Minna's wrongly voting in a municipal election or Multiculturalism Minister Hedy Fry's loopy comments about cross burners in British Columbia -- simply won't do. No, the best way to retain one's position is to do like "da boss" -- as ChrÃ©tien enjoys being referred to -- and ensure loyalty by doling out political favours. And getting caught with your fingers in the cookie jar can actually help ensure one's tenure. Mere months ago, there was talk of sending Gagliano packing to the Vatican on a diplomatic posting. But doing so now, in the wake of recent revelations that he interfered with hiring decisions at the supposedly arms-length Canada Lands Corporation, would make it appear that the Prime Minister was punishing the minister for conduct remarkably similar to ChrÃ©tien's own. Recall just over a year ago, when ChrÃ©tien responded to charges that he lobbied one of his own appointees, the head of the Business Development Bank of Canada, on behalf of a private company in his riding. "You call who you know," the Prime Minister said in dismissing allegations of wrongdoing. Sanctioning a minister for maintaining this same subterranean ethical standard now would seem both hypocritical and weak. It helps that Gagliano's loyalty to the Prime Minister goes back to his support for ChrÃ©tien in the 1990 Liberal leadership campaign. But resignations are seen as an admission of wrongdoing, and if there is one thing ChrÃ©tien has learned from his Tory predecessors, it is never to admit that a member of his Cabinet has done something unethical, no matter how egregious the conduct. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney never learned this lesson. Whenever scandals occurred under Mulroney, resignations were the norm, creating what The Ottawa Citizen termed "the era of the Generic Scandal," and steadily eroding Canadians' faith in the Tory government. ChrÃ©tien's strategy, in contrast, is to redefine scandal, setting the bar low so that ministers can exercise a full range of undue influence. The Prime Minister also leads by example in this regard, and trots out a short-leashed ethics counsellor to repeat that ministers have been "cleared of wrongdoing" whenever a potential scandal emerges. The political value of this strategy is obvious. ChrÃ©tien can continue to maintain that none of his ministers have had to resign in disgrace. But the strategy has two weaknesses. The first was triggered by Gagliano last month when he was trying to make the case that his political woes were the result of jealous Cabinet colleagues who were out to get him. Making reference to Prime Minister ChrÃ©tien, Gagliano told The Globe and Mail, "I served the way he wanted me to serve." Forced to respond to the current revelations, the Prime Minister's spokespeople placed their support behind the minister, in marked contrast to their responses to Minna and Fry's earlier missteps. The Prime Minister's tepid support for these ministers limited the damage to these ministers alone, while his support for Gagliano dangerously shifts the blame higher up. As Donald Savoie notes in his lucid analysis of the current Canadian political landscape, Governing from the Centre, "Conventional political wisdom is that if the Prime Minister becomes weak, or vulnerable, then the government becomes weak or vulnerable. On the other hand, if a minister becomes weak or vulnerable, the damage can often be contained to that minister alone." With his defence of Gagliano, ChrÃ©tien has shown he is willing to risk his own personal image and his government's by being associated with the scandal. The second down side to this strategy is the signal it sends to other ministers. At his first Cabinet meeting in 1993, ChrÃ©tien told his ministers he had plenty of talent in caucus, and that "the first person who makes a mistake will be out." The unsanctioned record of ministers like Gagliano erodes the force of these words, and gradually weakens the Prime Minister's hand in Cabinet. For the time being, however, these two weaknesses are purely hypothetical. They depend on a credible government-in-waiting on the opposition benches. Having not witnessed this in a long time, we have yet to see a scandal that can create a meaningful threat to Liberal hegemony. But with the signals being sent out by the Prime Minister's reaction to Gagliano's track record, that scandal may yet emerge. Aaron Freeman is an Ottawa-based writer and a founding director of Democracy Watch. The opinions expressed are his own.