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J.J. McCullough

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Media Bites: A Few Selfish Senators Do Not a Scandal Make

Posted: 10/23/2013 6:24 pm

As the murmurs and gossip get louder suggesting that the Senate expense scandal could possibly be the thing that topples Prime Minister Harper -- particularly in the wake of yesterday's passionate cries of self-defense from embattled senators Duffy and Brazeau -- it's worth pondering the question: what if all the allegations are true?

Piece together the assertions and innuendo from Duffy, Duffy's melodramatic lawyer, and Brazeau, and you'll end up with the absolute worst-case scenario, the series of damning events and conspiracies some are likening to the elaborate money-laundering racket that led to the downfall of the previous Liberal regime. Said doomsday scenario goes something like this:

Upon appointment to the upper chamber, the embattled senators in question (hell, let's just say every senator Harper appointed) were informed by high-ranking muckety-mucks in the Tory Party (hell, let's say Harper himself) that the Senate's residency requirements, that is, the part of our Constitution that says senators have to live in the province they represent, are a giant joke. Indeed, they were told, as the Duffy lawyer alleges Senate majority leader Marjory LeBreton told his client, that even if you live "99 per cent" of your Senate career in Ottawa, you're still within your legal rights to pretend you live in some other random province without getting in any trouble.

This is an enormous part of the Duffy-Brazeau defense against their looming expulsion from the Senate -- they claim the Senate's parameters for establishing where senators lived were vague to begin with, and made all the vaguer (or rather clearer, but in the wrong direction) by the Tory party's duplicitous Senate leadership.

But it's also a defense for a charge no one's really making. Duffy and friends could have pretended they were living on Mars for all anyone cares. The problem was that they used this lie, this claim to be living further away from Ottawa than they actually were, as a phony pretext for plunging their sticky fingers in to the Senate's travel and living expense cookie jar.

According to that infamous Deloitte audit of a few months back, during the six-month period between April 2011 and September 2012, Senator Duffy milked tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in per diems to cover all sorts of living-far-away expenses, including meals, flights, gas, and of course, his "second" house in Ottawa, where he's been living for decades, even though the only time he spent in his "primary" residence -- a resort cottage in P.E.I. -- was during summer vacation. Senator Brazeau, for his part, was estimated to have spent a whopping 10 per cent of that same six-month period in his "primary" residence of Maniwak, Quebec, but still charged taxpayers almost $49,000 in travel and housing compensation. The RCMP thinks it's possible he never lived there at all.

In his long and self-righteous screed on the Senate floor yesterday, Duffy recounted a conversation he had with the Prime Minister once word of his dubious travel expenses began to leak to the press. Harper, he said, was forcing him to take a fall for doing "nothing wrong" and having "violated no laws."

"It's not about what you did," responded the PM, according to Duffy. "It's about the perception of what you did that's been created in the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base." And so Duffy was strong-armed into paying back (with the help of PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright, of course) his $90,000 travel-and-living expense tab. Senator Brazeau, meanwhile, has never paid back anything, but similarly maintains he's being "thrown under the bus" for non-existent crimes.

Ta da! -- the crux of the shocker. The good people of Canada are supposed to be outraged, nay, demand the resignation of their prime minister, over the fact that this country's elected government was more concerned with the opinions of its "base" -- i.e. the voters of Canada -- than upholding the corrupt and loophole-ridden expense rules of a disgusting and worthless political institution with a 5 per cent approval rating.

Responding to the latest allegations in question period the other day, the Prime Minister didn't say much, but what he did say was precisely right: "We've been very clear that we expect all parliamentarians to respect the letter and the spirit of any rules regarding expenses and if they do not respect that, then they can expect there to be consequences and accountability for their actions."

Every word of that statement wonderfully illustrates just how pathetically weak the Duffy-Brazeau defenses are, and why I'm supremely skeptical this scandal will prove to be the giant-killer many in the press are anticipating (hoping?).

Even if the embattled senators were respecting the letter of the law, it's abundantly clear they were not respecting its spirit. They saw a loophole -- one that allowed them to get taxpayers to cover their mortgage payments and dinner bills under false pretenses -- and exploited it to the full extent. If the testimonies of Monsieurs Duffy and Brazeau are true, the worst that can be said about the head apparachiks of Team Harper is that they did not feel the need to patronizingly sit the two men down in their booster seats and patiently explain that just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.

The second part of Harper's statement, the bit about "consequences and accountability for their actions" is pitch-perfect as well. The Senate of Canada is a grotesque and monstrous institution, perhaps the worst constitutional body of any first-world democracy. No Canadian likes the Senate and to a growing extent, no Canadian wants the Senate -- reformed or otherwise. To get appointed to the thing in what are very obviously its dying days thus demands a huge degree of humility and self-awareness.

An acknowledgement that you're a member of an institution with zero democratic mandate to do anything, so it's probably best to leave a shallow a footprint.

But Brazeau and Duffy believe precisely the opposite. They consider themselves entitled to take whatever they can grab, and think it's deeply offensive and untoward for the Prime Minister of Canada to be bossing them around. I will not be subject to the "unaccountable power of the PMO" howled the unelected Senator Duffy, describing the office headed by a man elected with a mandate of 5.8 million.

For whatever stumbles and misstatements and cover-ups were made along the way, at its core, the Prime Minister's role in the Senate expense affair is a story about the elected head of the government of Canada demanding some shred of accountability and ethics from a crooked political institution whose members believe they have no obligation to provide either.

That's not a scandal.

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