Are your cables bundled? Your fees hidden? Does your phone roam? Call Stephen Harper. He is the government, and he is here to help. And he is decidedly not here to talk about the Senate expense scandal.
Wednesday was speech from the throne day in Ottawa, and Conservative senators had let it be known that they were hoping for some positive coverage. Queue howls of laughter from the PMO. Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid talking about the antics of the sober-second-thought brigade, and he’s not about to start giving them love now.
Never has a Canadian institution plunged so swiftly into disrepute as the Senate in the past few months. Or at least not since 1997, the last time anyone bothered to check in on the Red Chamber. On that occasion, you might recall, Canadians learned that one in five well-paid senators was chronically truant.
The poster boy for that particular scandal, the one in what are now Pamela Wallin’s shoes, was Andrew Thompson, a Liberal senator who showed up for work twice a year for seven years, spending the rest of his time in his villa in Mexico. Thompson got a slap on the wrist, the rules were tightened, and the story blew over, leaving an unpleasant odour around the tainted chamber.
That smell got a great deal stronger this year with the news that “activist” senators (no truants here) were cooking the expense figures, in many cases billing the Senate for what everyone knows, but no one admits, was their real job: promoting their own party’s interests. It’s bad enough when the party in power puts its bag people on the public payroll by giving them a Senate seat. When those party hacks insist on getting their hands deeper in our pockets by fiddling with the books, it’s more than the average taxpayer can stand.
In June 2013, shortly after the RCMP announced it was investigating the Senate expenses affair, a Nanos poll found that 49 per cent of Canadians want the Senate reformed, 41 per cent want it abolished, six per cent like the way it is, and four per cent aren’t sure, a historically low level of uncertainty in Canada, where it has been said that if the undecided vote was a party it would sweep every election.
So no, Harper didn’t make nice with his senators in Wednesday’s throne speech, though in a surprise move, he chose the Senate chamber as the venue. If Conservative senators took this a good sign they must have been deeply disappointed, since Harper (through his surrogate, the governor general) only mentioned the Senate once, and that was to muse about either reforming or abolishing it, depending on what the Supreme Court has to say.
The rest of the budget was all about good news. The government’s new self-declared mandate is to protect us from bad guys. Here’s a sample. “Canadian families work hard to make ends meet, and every dollar counts. While companies will look out for their bottom line, our government is looking out for everyday Canadians.”
Wait a minute. Stephen Harper is going to protect me from the corporations? Did I hear that right? And at the same time, he’s going to freeze the government’s budget to cope with his record deficits? Hm. So, the Conservatives run up a huge tab giving tax cuts to corporations, then they slash programs to cover the bill. Then, having no money left to buy votes at throne speech time, they pledge to make the corporations give back some of our money in the form of cheaper roaming charges.
And this is supposed to take our minds off the ever-unfolding Conservative scandals? Sorry, folks. We’re an accommodating people, but we’re not blind. We all saw Dean Del Mastro, Harper’s former parliamentary secretary, try to sneak off under cover of prorogation, yet another casualty of the CPC’s damn-the-torpedoes campaign style.
We heard about the RCMP’s affidavit contradicting the prime minister’s claim that no one in his office knew about the supposed private deal in which his former chief of staff wrote a very large cheque to cover Duffy’s posterior. Oops, when he said “no one,” Harper really meant to say “at least three other people”.
Thanks for the promise of election law reform, but we haven’t forgotten that Conservative Party officials are using Elections Canada’s current lack of subpoena power to stonewall the robocalls investigation.
Most of all, we have not failed to notice that Harper himself is fast becoming the most truant parliamentarian in the land. Every time scandal brushes too close to his own office, he is absent from Question Period, usually because he has left the country. If we had missed that point, the PM jogged our memory by skipping off to Europe this week, possibly marking the first time a Canadian prime minister has missed the House the day after his throne speech was delivered.
In short, the Conservative attempt to pull the wool over Canadians’ eyes has failed. I’m sure for those who have cable and cellphones the throne speech promises of cheaper services smelled sweet as roses. But they’ll never cover up the stench of a government mired in scandal.
Attention Stephen Harper. Want to change the channel? Come clean on the Duffy affair, stop blocking the robocalls investigation, and don’t leave the country every time the facts start catching up with you. You can run from the truth, but you can’t hide.
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.