Tag Archives: Canadian Senate expense scandal

Senate shenanigans mask a bigger scandal

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A foreign observer might be forgiven for thinking that Canadian politics, these days, begins and ends with a rotund, cherry-faced man with a bum ticker. Not a morning passes when Senator Mike Duffy’s mug doesn’t grace the news sections of major and minor media from Bay Bulls, Newfoundland to Port Hardy, British Columbia.

As for this, a foreign observer might also be mystified. What, pray tell, is all the fuss? Is it the fact that Mr. Duffy, a former broadcast journalist and legendary raconteur, is simply too quotable to ignore, as, apparently, he was on last Monday when he addressed his upper chamber colleagues on the now grindingly familiar matter of his expenses?

“I come here today, against my doctor’s orders, directly from the Heart Institute,” he complained, though clearly relishing the opportunity to hear, once more, the sound of his own voice.

“I have to give them a plug. If you have any spare cash, they’re always happy to take donations. Maybe that’s out of order. Anyway, they are wonderful, caring people over there who advised me, if possible, to stay away from these proceedings because the stress from the proceedings is toxic to my heart.

“But despite their warnings, I have no choice but to appear considering the avalanche of untruths and character assassination with which I’ve been unfairly and viciously attacked by colleagues who should know better. . . When I insisted on written guarantees that repaying money I didn’t owe would not be seen by the Senate as a guilty plea, Nigel Wright arranged to have my legal fees paid. That is right.”

As for the big reveal, it was interesting. But only vaguely.

“One cheque from Nigel Wright? No, ladies and gentlemen: there were two cheques, at least two cheques. The PMO, listen to this, had the Conservative Party’s lawyer, Arthur Hamilton, pay my legal fees. He paid for my lawyer – Arthur Hamilton – a cheque, $13,560. That is right, senators: not one payment, not one payment but two.”

In its lead editorial on Monday, The Globe and Mail observed, “Mr. Duffy’s main line of defence has now come down to this: I was only following orders. . .His asserted conversion from marionette to whistleblower is self-serving and obnoxious. But is there any truth to it?”

A better question, at this point, might be: Who cares?

As scandals go, this one is more sizzle than steak. Its deeply compromised significance may make Canadians momentarily angry, but only about appearances. The appearance of impropriety. The appearance of high-handedness. The appearance of cover-ups. Nothing so grand as the future of democracy, or even the integrity of our public institutions, is actually on the line.

In this respect, former newspaper owner Conrad Black has it exactly right: If we want a better Senate, appoint better senators. (While we’re at it, we might check the rules and regulations governing members’ entitlements and comportment for cobwebs and dust bunnies).

In the broad context of the nation’s truly important business, we should count the one indisputable blessing we know about our political system: It’s not American. The U.S. now faces  almost structural dysfunction, as one crazy congressional faction uses the public purse to hold both the legislative and executive branches of government hostage to the imperious notion that election outcomes don’t really matter, after all.

At least, that’s what an informed foreigner might conclude about us. He might also ponder the relative absence of news on issues about which Canadians once said they cared deeply: job insecurity, income disparity, crumbling infrastructure, unravelling health care, environmental degradation, climate change, and military spending.

In fact, according to a CTV report last year, “A new survey says keeping Canada’s health care system strong, creating jobs and keeping communities safe are issues of top importance  to Canadians. However, that same poll suggests Canadians have little confidence in elected officials’ ability to address these issues of concern.”

That, of course, is the real scandal in our national politics.

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Still life in the old chamber

August bodies in abeyance

August bodies in abeyance

The Senate, many Canadians seem to believe, is entitled, corrupt and well past its best before date. And given the roiling expense scandals now underway, who can really blame them?

“One could say it’s a great soap opera,” Marilyn Trenholm Counsell, a former senator, herself, told CBC Radio’s New Brunswick rolling home show last week. “Of course, it isn’t a soap opera. It’s real and it’s hurtful.”

She’s right, of course.

Deriding the Upper Chamber has become everyone’s favorite parlor game. “On a daily basis evidence piles up that reveals our upper house to be neither useful nor necessary. An incessant string of scandals and disgraceful behaviour by senators has turned the red chamber into a national embarrassment,” Macleans magazine opined earlier this year. “Its functionality has been eroded to nothing with little prospect for change, despite claims from the Harper government to champion Senate reform.”

To others, however, this conclusion, while not entirely unjustified, seems conveniently rash.

Most of the Senate’s business is in committee. It’s here where, in the words of Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, the chamber’s “heart and soul” rests. According to an information circular posted to the CBC’s website a couple of years ago, “committees discuss important social, economic and political issues and this forum is where senators hear from interested citizens.”

Indeed, “Most bills, prior to third reading, are referred to committees where they are examined closely. In the Senate committee stage, public hearings are held, the bills are studied clauses by clause, and a report on the bill is prepared and presented to the Senate. Committees, which function as study groups, include 12 to 15 senators.”

Ms. Trenholm Counsell, who also served for a time as New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor, elaborated on this to good effect in her recent radio interview.

“I worked as hard in the Senate as I did anywhere else. Wonderful work is done; the committee work,” she said. “I worked on. . .studies. I worked on a study on early childhood development. I burned the midnight oil quite often.”

In fact, she observed, “It is so interesting historically. Some bills have had upward of 100 amendments. The history and the tradition has been that those amendments have been accepted. . .I think we need the studies that come out of the Senate.

“In the House of Commons, they may bring in two or three people at the committee stage to speak to a bill. In some of the great bills that have come to the Senate, we might have had as many as 100 witnesses right across this country come in and speak to the substance of the bill. From there we made amendments which, by and large, were accepted. So, the legislation was better, much better. And that is because you had the great people. . .I am worried that this greatness is going out of the thing.”

She’s not aone.

Expense scandals, aside, the Senate’s growing partisanship, its evolution into a rubber stamp for the sitting government is contributing to its compromised stature. If its historical utility was related to its function as a check on the excesses of the Commons, to its role as what John A. Macdonald famously termed a chamber of “sober second thought”, the politics of modern times might easily render these expectations both quaint and antiquated.

Still, some signs are encouraging. As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “Senators pressed the government about why a federal spy agency has been probing telecommunications in Brazil, seeking clear answers about the activities of Communications Security Establishment Canada. Asking whether the spy agency has sufficient oversight, both Liberals and Conservatives in the Red Chamber demanded more information on Thursday about CSEC and its interest in Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.”

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, for one, appeared untroubled by his party affiliations when he pointedly commented, “Canada is the only country not to have any legislative oversight of any kind for its national-security services.”

All of which is to ask: Is there yet life in the Upper Chamber?

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How a Canadian senator goes down swinging

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They will not go gently into that soft night, after all. They will scream and blame and, if they have anything to say about it, they will destroy those who set out to destroy them.

That’s what happens when former broadcast journalists turned semi-disgraced Canadian senators have nothing left to lose.

Mike Duffy had his day in the spotlight earlier this week when he declared before an assembly of his Upper Chamber colleagues in Ottawa:

“Like you, I took an solemn oath to put the interests of Canadians ahead of all else. However, the sad truth is I allowed myself to be intimidated into doing what I knew in my heart was wrong, out of a fear of losing my job and out a misguided sense of loyalty. . .Let me repeat, Deloitte investigated, their audit of my expenses related to my home in P.E.I., did not find wrongdoing. They said I had not broken the Senate’s rules.”

As for the vote to suspend him, he added, “This motion is something one might expect to see in Iraq or Iran, or in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but not in democratic Canada. It is not, I repeat, fundamental justice.”

He reserved his choicest criticism for the Prime Minister’s Office: “Today, you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO. That’s what this Senate’s about, sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”

Then it came Pamela Wallin’s turn.

“The motion to suspend me is baseless and premature, and likely beyond the scope of this chamber,” she told senators. “By throwing a member of this Senate under the bus, finding her guilty without a fair hearing such as any other Canadian could expect – a right guaranteed us by the Charter – to proceed without the evidence having been adduced and considered on which the charge in the motion is based – is a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy – and makes a mockery of this chamber.”

Then out came the fangs.

“One of the senators who sits in judgment of all of us, who had her sights trained on me from the beginning, Senator Stewart-Olsen, has recently had questions raised about her own probity in relation to her residential expense claims,” she crowed. “But of course there will be no Deloitte audit in her case. Apparently, the Committee on Internal Economy, of which she has long been a member, intends to consider her matter in private. This is a double standard – she gets kid glove treatment and I’m unfairly singled out for a retroactive audit.”

At the heart of all of this, Wallin declared, was simple, ugly, professional jealousy.

“She (Sen. Stewart-Olsen) and Marjory LeBreton (former Conservative Senate leader) could not abide the fact that I was outspoken in caucus, or critical of their leadership – or that my level of activity brought me into the public eye and once garnered the praise of the prime minister. They resented that – they resented me being an activist senator. In this chamber, Senator Marjory LeBreton derided me, accusing me of having an inflated view of my role.”

This is how a three-ring circus becomes a bout of bare knuckle mixed martial arts – the finest display of senatorial cage fighting since the Red Chamber last updated its rules of residency some time in the 19th century.

As for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the message is simple: Bad behaviour by elected or appointed representatives will not be tolerated. Period. End of discussion. So sayest Dad: “The victims here are the CanadIan people who expect from all parliamentarians that they will treat pubic money with the appropriate respect and integrity it deserves.”

It remains to be seen, of course, how much more bad behaviour will be  uncovered  – or covered up, as the case may be – in the Senate and the PMO.

It’s all very well to rage against the dying of the light, until you realize the lights on Parliament Hill went out a long time ago.

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