Plagued by scandal, the drama in the Canadian Senate continues to carry on. The rising accusations are raising questions about the responsibility of Harper’s government and the seeming need for Upper House reforms.
The controversy began as an issue of illegitimate spending claims relating to housing rules and travel expenses. Senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, and Pamela Wallin have all been accused of abusing Senate resources. The debate has now evolved into a multi-faceted complex involving questions of prime ministerial credibility, reform, and democratic legitimacy.
Senator Mike Duffy has been a prime target throughout this ongoing fiasco after covering up his acceptance of a $90 000 reimbursement cheque. The now former Chief of Staff Nigel Wright repaid Duffy’s illegitimate claims in act of good charity. After this information was leaked by the press, Wright was dismissed with resignation.
Duffy revealed on Tuesday that he was given a second cheque in the amount of $13 500 to pay for his legal fees. He claims to have emails and the cheque stub to prove it, additionally purporting that Arthur Hamilton, the Conservative Party’s head lawyer, paid it.
The cheque was signed by Hamilton and made out to Duffy’s legal representative’s law firm. Later in the day, the Conservative Party’s communications director acknowledged that it had paid Duffy’s fees, stating he was still a member of the caucus at the time.
The following day, however, Duffy shook the Senate with forceful allegations by which he raised more questions than answers. He asserted that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) instructed him to lie about the source of the $90 000 cheque. He stated that the PMO developed a story to offer explanation for his repayment when there was anticipation that the media would be curious of the moneys origin. Duffy claimed that he was told to borrow more money from the Royal Bank of Canada, where he had been using a line of credit to renovate his P.E.I. home.
To further add to the mix, the CBC’s Power & Politics allegedly acquired an email exchange between Duffy and former PMO staffer Chris Woodcock which seems to undermine Duffy’s credibility. Duffy denied accepting any “loans/gifts” in the exchange, claiming that he told the truth about the origin of the $90 000 – that it was a loan from RBC. Though technically it may have been true, the email raises questions as to whether or not Duffy was adhering to the PMOs supposedly fabricated story.
Yet, his rhetorical ploys coupled with booming accusations are still echoing in the Upper House. Duffy is asserting that the PMO threatened to destroy his credibility if he was to go public about the cheque’s origin.
“You wait until Canadians see the email trail in the hands of my lawyers and, I hope, in the hands of the RCMP,” Duffy said. “This was a setup from the start… I am innocent.”
Though it was the CTV that uncovered and made public the Wright-Duffy affair, it seems his image has been corrupted by months of demonizing headlines.
Recent Ipsos Reid polls conducted for CTV News found that “73 per cent of respondents believe Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau should be ‘immediately suspended from the Senate without pay.’”
Only within this last week have these senators been given the ability to defend themselves against the proposed motion for their suspensions. When Parliament resumed mid-October, all three senators deemed the suspensions inappropriate and demonstrated their willingness to protest the allegations of illegitimate spending claims.
During the past 10 days Duffy has asserted again that he did no wrong. Wallin’s statement accused senators Marjoy LeBreton and Carolyn Steward Olsen of seeking revenge, arguing the abuse of Senate power in denying her fundamental right to due process. Lastly, and a real shocker, Brazeau accused government Senate leader Claude Carignan of offering him a backroom deal to lessen his punishment.
“The issue of due process is something that in the court of public opinion you could argue, but you should be arguing it at the outset. Most people believe that there’s been a violation of public trust here and that these senators should be gone,” said Wright.
Manitoba Senator Don Plett stated that “the problem here is what we are trying to do over-simplifies a complex issue with a quick fix at the expense of three individuals before giving them the opportunity to defend themselves.”
The Liberals have put forth an amendment to redirect the suspension motions to a Senate committee, and thereby ensure the three senators receive due process at a public hearing.
Following the week of defences, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was intensely questioned on Tuesday stating that: “Senators collected expenditures that they should not have collected in our judgment, and of course a member of my staff facilitated an improper payment on that. That member has been removed and those senators who have taken improper payment should be removed from the public payroll.” He continues to deny any knowledge or involvement in the Wright-Duffy affair.
The recent Ipsos Reid poll results show that “one-in-three Canadians ‘agrees’ that they ‘believe Prime Minister Harper when he says he did not know about his former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, writing a personal cheque for $90,000 to pay back Senator Duffy’s inappropriate expenses.’”
Back in June, however, Harper maintained that Wright and Duffy where the only ones who knew of the $90 000 reimbursement cheque. He altered his response last Thursday, saying Wright “informed very few people” — all of which are known to be main confidantes of the prime minister. The question of his credibility as Prime Minister is becoming unclear, given his known reputation as a micromanager.
When the new session of Parliament opened mid-October, the legislative agenda for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government said:
“The government continues to believe the status quo in the Senate of Canada is unacceptable. The Senate must be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish.”
The public has come to see the upper house as democratically illegitimate given that it has no elected officials. It has become clear that it is rife with partisan scandals that do not advance the needs of the public in which they are appointed to represent, and is therefore lacking validation.
Harper came to power by attacking corruption in the Liberal party. Three senators in the current controversy were Conservatives appointed by Prime Minister Harper, despite his promise on taking office in 2006 to introduce an election system for the Senate.
A 2011 National Post editorial piece outlined the necessary reform priorities put forth by the Conservative government. Of the ten priorities, the first nine were fairly consistent with their political promises. The tenth, however, played on the shortcomings of the 2006 Harper Conservatives by demonstrating their inability to materialize past promises. The added priority cheekily stated the need to: Reinstate a culture of openness, transparency, and accountability on Parliament Hill. Now that the Conservatives have a majority , there is no excuse (not that there ever was) for the paranoia, secrecy, rule-bending, shirking of due-process and committee bullying that rightly has become the subject of opposition ire in recent years.
The reoccurring issues under the Harper government have been dragging on, highlighted as show time drama by the media. The deceit and mistreatment of public trust is tarnishing the name of the Prime Minister and his government.
Later in the week, Senators are expected to debate a motion that would close talk on the suspensions and force a vote.
Cowan says the three senators should be able to present their cases with legal counsel during public hearings.
Duffy advised the leadership in the Senate to withdraw these “dangerous and anti-democratic motions, declare victory and go off to Calgary to celebrate the government’s many substantial achievements for Canadians.”
The national Conservative convention is set to commence on Oct 31st until November 2nd in Calgary.