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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