This week, the front pages of the national papers are still crowded with reports connected to the cover-up of a scandal that broke in June 2012, when Canada’s auditor general released a report showing that certain senators had been more-than-usually creative with their expense accounts.
On Wednesday alone, the Toronto Star reported that Senator Mike Duffy appealed to the prime minister to help him make his repayment problem go away, the National Post’s Keith Beardsley narrated a tale of meeting a “Tim Horton’s crowd” and finding them less than credulous about Stephen Harper’s version of events in the Duffy case, and the Globe and Mail featured a piece about Senator Pamela Wallin which recapped the whole Senate spending scandal.
By Thursday the Conservative caucus had lost its first MP in the affair, Albertan Brent Rathgeber, who resigned over issues of transparency and accountability, explaining that “recent allegations concerning expense scandals and the government’s response has been extremely troubling.” Rathgeber is said to have support among a number of his former backbench colleagues.
How can this be? Why does this story seem to threaten a government, which has weathered what should have been far stormier seas without obvious damage? In 2007, when a well-respected Canadian academic reported that our troops were handing prisoners to the notorious bloody torturers of the Afghan secret police, the Harper government blustered, postured, smeared reputations and skirted the truth, and finally in 2009 prorogued Parliament to prevent the facts from coming to light.
In 2012 the Military Police Complaints Commission released its report on the Afghan detainee issue, delayed for so long, it said, because of Conservative foot-dragging and obstruction. The commission found that although Canada did hand prisoners over to torturers – a violation of the Geneva Conventions – eight military police officers were not guilty of war crimes because the responsibility fell higher up. The story made the papers for one day and then quietly disappeared. The Conservative caucus remained intact.
In 2010, the Harper government signed a deal to purchase F35 fighters from the U.S. In 2012, the auditor general released a report criticizing the government for spending $9 billion on a sole-sourced contract for planes that weren’t built or even fully designed yet. The issue was front-and-centre during the 2011 election and yet the Conservatives won a majority. When it was revealed in 2012 that the government had been fudging the numbers, and that the real cost of the jets would be more like $45 billion, the story made the papers for a few days, and then faded without a single Conservative resignation.
Peter MacKay, the minister of defence who fronted both the above fiascos, remained in his job. In 2010 he was caught using a search-and-rescue Cormorant helicopter as a private ferry to hoist him out of a private Newfoundland fishing camp so that he could be in Ontario to re-announce an old spending promise. The cost: $16,000 for the helicopter ride, $25,000 for two Challenger jet trips, and an unspecified amount for National Defense bureaucrats to concoct excuses for the minister and dig for dirt on opposition members.
Documents released in 2012 under an access to information request confirmed that the explanation MacKay gave for this misappropriation of public funds was at odds with the facts. No Conservative was harmed in the making of this scandal.
The Harper brand has survived the in-and-out boondoggle, in which the Conservative Party was convicted of playing fast and loose with election spending rules. In 2010 it sailed through the most notorious hijacking of Canadian democracy in modern history, when appointed Conservative senators blocked passage of a Commons environment bill. The very existence of many of those Conservative senators should be a major scandal, given that Harper campaigned on a promise that he’d never appoint an unelected senator.
And of course the Conservative Party is still un-sunk by the robocalls story. Whether or not the real culprits in the attempt to subvert the 2011 election are ever caught, history will judge the Harper government’s stonewalling as a clear sign of guilt. Yet even with the party implicated in the attempted theft of an election, the Conservative caucus held firm.
Today, the Conservative brand seems to be in trouble, but why? The Senate accounts affair is about money, not torture and war crimes, not proroguing Parliament to evade the truth, not using the appointed Senate to cheat democracy, not stealing elections or commandeering SAR flights. By comparison to other Conservative money scandals, the misappropriated funds represent a pittance – hardly more than the cost of a ministerial fishing trip, less than a pointless gazebo in a minister’s riding.
Maybe it’s because this is the scandal with everything that defines the Harper government. Those involved have been arrogant, self-serving, and dishonest. They have engaged in stonewalling and cover-up. They have placed the interests of the party above the good of the country, and their own interests above all. They appear to have cheated on election expenses, and just like the Liberals they once berated for it, they have used the Senate to pay salaries and expenses for campaigners and bag people.
This government should have been turfed years ago for covering up war crimes, for stealing democracy, for wasting billions, for championing oil companies over Canada’s environmental future, for muzzling scientists and so much more, and it should be turfed today for all of these and for its part in the Senate scandal. It won’t. In a couple of weeks Parliament will rise, all the players will go home, and the story will fade into the background.
The government will do everything in its power to prevent all the facts from coming out before the next election, and they may well succeed as they have every time before. The latest scandal looks like it could break the Conservative grip on power, and it should. Let’s not hold our breath.
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.