Senator Mike Duffy says he’s “pleased” that the Senate’s internal economy committee will re-examine his expense accounts. I bet he is. That’s the same committee that exonerated him less than a month ago. It’s a committee dominated by his old Conservative pals, and it stands accused of altering documents in his case. It sits in camera, and its minutes are sealed. If you ever have to face a jury, I wish you one like that.
The alternative, presented by dissenting Liberal senators, was to have the matter referred to the RCMP. No, no, no, no, no, that’s not the way we treat senators in Canada. Particularly not if they come from the ruling party. Although access is no longer restricted to white males, the Canadian Senate is still a 19th-century gentlemen’s club, and the decision to refer the peccadilloes of its members to the constabulary is not taken lightly. Far better to settle such things behind closed doors, out of the distracting eye of the rabble. Or to quote section 4 of Chapter 1:02 of the Senate Administrative Rules, “senators act on their personal honour and senators are presumed to have acted honourably.”
Here is a story about privilege. Canada conferred great privilege on Mike Duffy. Or to be specific, Stephen Harper did, by appointing him to the Senate. Duffy earned that privilege by being a loyal Conservative, a well-known TV reporter, and a great schmooze artist. Installed in the red chamber he became a popular speaker at fundraisers and campaign events around the country. This is the Senate at work for you: providing handsome salaries and expense accounts for party operatives, at the taxpayers’ expense.
When someone hands you a sinecure like a Senate seat, you hand over something in return. Let’s call it your loyalty. For $132,000 a year and free travel, you dance with who brung you. Which means that the Senate is effectively a branch of the Prime Minister’s Office. Senators can soberly second-think all they like; in the end they vote the party line. That goes for Senate committees too, of course. So when Chief of Staff Nigel Wright wrote a cheque to cover a little accidental overcharge on expenses (those forms are so confusing) he didn’t have to speculate on whether it would shut down the forensic audit of Duffy’s affairs. He simply had to decide.
Which brings us to the question of what Harper knew, and when. The PM insists he learned of the cheque from media reports, and that he is “very upset.” A collective snort went up all over Canada at this, but it may be true. It is one of the principles of good politics that the leader should be insulated from scandal. When you’re doing something that runs a bit close to the edge, you don’t tell the boss, especially at the prime ministerial level.
But there are levels of not-knowing. There is the kind of total ignorance that comes from being deceived. This kind of not-knowing leader is duped by his or her staff into believing that everything is on the up-and-up, while underhanded underlings are secretly up to no good. At the other end of the not-knowing stick is the hands-over-eyes “I see nothing” maneuver, also known as willful ignorance. Between these two extremes are shades of naivete.
Suppose a prime minister said at his first staff meeting, “You may have to bend the rules sometimes. If so never, ever tell me.” He would in that case be guilty of a kind of general complicity, a Nixonian acceptance that dirty tricks must be played, but there would be nothing to tie him directly to the writing of questionable cheques or interfering with audits. He would in that case be guilty of nothing more than a kind of general sleaze, a moral wishy-washiness.
But suppose a leader lets it be known that he wants something done about a specific case, but doesn’t say what. Suppose he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to hear how his directive was fulfilled. A new picture begins to emerge. Now we’ve come beyond sleaze and all the way to complicity. When the Godfather tells his minions to reason with somebody, they know he doesn’t mean talk.
When Harper asserts that he knew nothing about Wright’s gift to Duffy, which of these characters is he claiming to be? The good and moral but slightly dopey chief duped by unscrupulous staff? The powerless official with no choice but to cover his eyes and pretend he doesn’t see? The sleazy boss who lets it be known in advance that the moral code is elastic so long as his deniability is preserved? Or the compromised leader who said, ‘Fix this, and don’t tell me how’?
You can hear the silence all over the country as Canadians hold their breath in anticipation of the answers to these and all the other questions surrounding the Senate expenses scandal. After all, as Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird has told us, there are two “independent enquiries” into the affair. One is being conducted by ethics commissioner Whitewash Mary Dawson, who never met a Conservative she couldn’t exonerate, and the other by a Conservative-dominated Senate committee which is itself a suspect in the case.
Yes, Mike Duffy has reason to be pleased. The fix is in.
Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.