Scandal And Celebrity: This Week In Canadian Politics

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OTTAWA — The images that stand out at the end of this week in federal politics don't, at first glance, say very much about how events on Parliament Hill affected everyday lives.

The media circus around the exoneration of Sen. Mike Duffy and the show around Justin Trudeau in a boxing ring in New York City are symbols of two collective obsessions — scandal and celebrity.

But they nonetheless represent important shifts that do indeed have an influence on how our political system works and reflects the will of voters. The Duffy saga is not just about a profligate senator, a talented defence lawyer and an unscrupulous Prime Minister's Office. It's also about what our political representatives — elected and otherwise — can get away with. 

And sparring in front of the cameras is not just about a buff prime minister showing off his tattoos. It's also about drawing new participation into public life.

Here's how federal politics touched us this week:

DUFFY AND THE CIRCUS: Now that a year of high drama in the court has come to an end with the senator acquitted on all 31 charges related to his expense claims, the judge's ruling has put a spotlight on the power concentrated in the PMO.

"The political, covert, relentless, unfolding of events is mind-boggling and shocking," wrote Ontario Court Judge Charles Vaillancourt. "The precision and planning of the exercise would make any military commander proud."

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Sen. Mike Duffy arrives at the Ottawa Courthouse as his trial resumes on Thursday in Ottawa. (Photo: Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

We still don't know why former prime minister Stephen Harper's staff went to such lengths to quiet the spending scandal — a question that remains in the public interest. And we also don't thoroughly understand how the federal political system came to believe that it was OK for the PMO to tell senators and their aides what to do and what to say; to intervene in an audit; or to assume that allies in the senate would make fundraising and fulfilling the goals of the PMO their raison-d'etre.

Will the senators and today's PMO take this ruling to heart, take a hard look at old assumptions, and adjust the standards of accountability accordingly, so that voters know that their representatives in Ottawa, be they elected or selected, are acting in the public interest?

BOXING IN NEW YORK: By now, Canadians are used to seeing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flexing his muscles on the international stage, and some may have rolled their eyes when Trudeau showed up in the ring with young athletes this week before moving on to sign a climate change accord at the United Nations. But Trudeau's victory at the polls last fall was partly a result of his appeal to new voters — groups of people who have not traditionally had a high turnout at the polls. Especially youth. And he needs to keep them interested.

An Abacus Research poll this week suggested turnout among 18-25-year-olds was up significantly in the 2015 election, from 39 per cent in the past to about 50 per cent. And the Liberals appear to have won a solid plurality of that new vote.

justin trudeau brooklyn boxing
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spars in the ring at Gleason's Boxing Gym in the Brooklyn borough of New York, on Thursday. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Young voters are looking to the political system to help with finding a job, buying a house, and starting a family; and they're worried about the stability of the economy and the ability of the social security system to support them in their eventual old age. But their disinterest in politics is notorious, and the Liberals are highly motivated to make sure it is kept at bay.

HIGH ON THE HILL: Hundreds of young people showed no sign of disinterest this week when they showed up in full flower-power regalia to fire up spliffs on the lawn of Parliament Hill. Plumes of pot wafted down Sparks Street on Wednesday, the annual 4/20 pro-marijuana protest.

The demonstration was different this year — more of a celebration, since the Trudeau government ran on a platform of legalizing pot. Just as demonstrators took to the Hill, Health Minister Jane Philpott was at the United Nations in New York announcing that she would introduce legislation in about a year to make marijuana legal.

420 ottawa marijuana rally
A woman smokes a joint during the annual 420 marijuana rally on Parliament hill on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 in Ottawa. (Photo: Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

But the Liberals know they need to be careful not to frame the legalization of pot as a celebration; they are frequently having to explain to their Conservative opponents that the main point of legalization is to better keep illegal drugs out of the hands of young people. Plus, they are mindful that Canada is dealing with a terrible increase in the illicit use of prescription drugs that is taking more lives than ever before, and that a larger federal government role is urgent.

Will they be able to promote marijuana legalization on the one hand, while cracking down on the improper use of already-legal drugs on the other?

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