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Media Bites: Pundits Split Hairs on the Senate Scandal

10/28/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

It's long been my thesis that much of the damage inflicted upon Canada's Conservative government as a result of this elaborate and ongoing Senate scandal (dare we call it "Senategate?") is a direct result of most people not really understanding what the scandal is actually about. Let alone what's supposed to be scandalous.

In the Globe and Mail last Friday, columnist Gary Mason quipped that the "language being spoken in the capital these days" -- which is to say, the endless he-said-she-said back-and-forth between obscure political figures you've never heard of haggling over timelines of events you never knew occurred -- "is not a language most Canadians speak or comprehend." Indeed, in my personal experience, to the extent the public can be said to be "following" this story, they've simply picked up a few of the most damning phrases being endlessly repeated in the press -- corrupt senators, shady backroom deals, suspicious expense filings, censored audits, $90,000 cheques, claims of blackmail, denials of due process, Mike Duffy, etc. -- and let their imaginations fill in the rest.

That sort of loose grasp of the big picture might be enough to produce a few head nods at next week's dinner party -- Can you believe this Senate mess? -- but if you're a professional columnist with 900 words to fill, you might need to make your indictment of the ruling party a tad more coherent. So what does Senategate mean to those pundits who've made careers out of assuming the worst about the Prime Minister?

Less than you might expect.

Writing in the Toronto Star, the reliably left-wing Haroon Siddiqui says that while complaints of railroading and witch-hunting from the three embattled spend-happy senators facing expulsion from Canada's upper chamber are "valid," their "profligacy at the taxpayers' expense remains the greater sin, by far." Which is basically the Harper argument -- when it comes to holding naughty senators to account, the ends will always justify the means. So what are the real issues then, Haroon?

"The real issues," he replies, "are whether Harper has been telling the truth about what, exactly, he knew and when," particularly when it comes to the folks Haroon calls "the prime ministerial sherpas" and their alleged involvement in dubious deal-making and document-doctoring. In other words, as good ol' Jeff Simpson said in the Globe and Mail last week if "the sense grows that the government covered up evidence, then the cover-up risks becoming more important than the original story."

At the Toronto Sun, meanwhile, noted Liberal partisan Warren Kinsella thinks "the Senate scandal virus is spreading, and it is edging inexorably closer" to Stephen Harper. But he also seems to think the PM's declining political health is as much the product of poor message control as any wrongdoing per se. Why the PM didn't just tell the public early on that he personally screamed "PAY THE MONEY BACK" at Senator Duffy after news of his embezzlement first broke is "mystifying" and kinda pathetic, says Warren. In Kinsella-world, it's not the scandal that kills or the cover-up, it's a "party's inability to rebut that scandal" with clever excuses. Just look at what happened to my guys, he says.

Then there's Andrew Coyne at the National PostHe thinks the crux of Senategate is the question of how the Harper government's enforcing public servant accountability these days, and whether Team Harper is using completely "arbitrary standards, selectively enforced, in the service of political expediency rather than public integrity" to hold scammers like Duffy and friends to account. All palsy walsy, don't-worry-we'll-whitewash-the-auditor's-report one day, a speedy trip under the wheels of the bus the next.

What's most revealing when you read columns like the ones above -- hardly the products of men willing to pull punches when it comes to the Tory government -- is how narrow and particular their indictments tend to be. There are no implications that Harper's been corrupt in the traditional sense -- that is, abusing his powers to materially benefit himself or his party -- nor does anyone seem particularly worried the PM might have committed an offence either criminal or constitutional in scope. Mostly they're just bothered by the Conservative Party's ethical lapses and questionable moral code, and the degree to which both have made a string of bad things even worse.

Which isn't to say governments can't be toppled over moral failings. We're the heirs of the British system, after all, in which one of the earliest uses of parliament was to fire the King's "immoral" ministers (the ones who said "trousers" in the presence of a lady or whatever) simply for bringing "scandal upon the Kingdom." 

In the Anglo-American tradition, the public's always possessed the right to demand the removal of politicians simply caught acting unseemly, regardless of the legal status of said unseemly acts. This is one of the main reasons it's been so disingenuous for the embattled trio of senators to wail self-righteously about getting crucified for having "done nothing wrong" (strictly speaking). As the PM said, it's perfectly standard to discipline politicians who break the "spirit of the law" as well as those who violate its letter.

As I wrote last week, I'm personally convinced that the underlying motives of our PM during the Senategate timeline, and the practical consequences of his actions -- namely, the expulsion of three crooked senators and the firing of an overzealous chief of staff  -- are honourable enough to give the man a pass on whatever missteps or hypocrisies occurred along the way.

The question for everyone else, however, is whether Harper's missteps and hypocrisies rise to the level of breaking the spirit of ethical government -- a moral offense for which many politicians have been forced to pay the ultimate price.

Outcast Senators Strike Back