Monday, October 28, 2013

And Justice For None

You'll have to forgive my late commentary on the issue that has been percolating this entire week, and promises to take up as much time next week as well. I speak, of course, about the state of the Canadian Senate and the dramatic fireworks that have come out from the three 'exile' Senators.

Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau stood before their colleagues this week and attempted to explain why they should be allowed to keep their jobs. To no one's great surprise, this straightforward idea has been anything but. It's been a week that has seen cries of conspiracy, vendettas, deception, and breaking of the public trust.

It's the sort of drama one expects to find in the latest political thriller, not Canada.

And while the Senate has long been a thorn in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's side, this week it became a dagger that threatens to do to him what 31 daggers did to Julius Caesar. Conservative Senate leadership has been quick to call for the suspension of the three Senators, and no doubt many in the Conservative Party expected this to be the cure for their ills.

Instead, it has become a fox and pony show that has Canadians paying more attention to their government than they have in recent years. And acting as though he were an expert contortionist, Stephen Harper has tried to bend and evade to no avail. In attempting to dodge the issue, Harper has instead found himself front and centre in a series of questions that have changing answers; and it isn't just the House of Commons listening, it's all of Canada.

So, let's recap.

Mike Duffy spoke at length in the Senate about a conspiracy from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and how he was a victim in it. Duffy threw a firebomb in Harper's storyline, suggesting that he met with Harper and Nigel Wright to discuss repayment of the $90,000 in expenses he claimed. He further suggested that he was 'bullied' into repayment through phone calls from then Government Leader Marjory LeBreton and Harper's now Chief of Staff Ray Novak.

He also spoke about a deal that was struck prior to the Deloitte audits in which the Senate would 'white-wash' his report, in exchange for his repayment.

This has caused Harper to go from suggesting that Nigel Wright was a 'rogue agent' who acted alone, to admitting that a few people in the PMO knew about the repayment Wright provided for Duffy. This is the first, of many, changes to Harper's story and the NDP Opposition led by Thomas Mulcair have done an exceptional job at pointing out these changes and keeping pressure on Harper.

At the very least, Duffy proves to be the most interesting factor in play in all of this. Provided he does indeed possess the documents he's made claim to, he could indeed implicate a large amount of Conservative insiders and perhaps even Harper himself. It will be interesting to see what comes out once Duffy releases those documents.

Wallin continued the 'conspiracy' angle played by Duffy, and suggested that Senators Marjory LeBreton and Carolyn Stewart-Olsen had personal 'vendettas' against her. Brazeau railed against the lack of due process.

Let's focus on those issues before we start to discuss the myriad of other ones that came up.

I can't speak to personal vendettas between LeBreton, Stewart-Olson and Wallin; but it is interesting that both of those other Senators crop up with regards to Duffy. LeBreton has been doing the talk shows to defend the government and her good name, but she's been torpedoing both in the process. LeBreton certainly raised eyebrows when she admitted that the government wanted this entire affair over with before the Conservative Convention in Calgary this coming weekend.

It also raises the question many have been asking: Why now?

After all, news of the Senate expenses scandal broke almost six months ago. And in the beginning, the Prime Minister was less 'fire and brimstone' towards his star Senators than he was their chief defender. If you will recall, Harper defended Nigel Wright for days after it came out that he had given Duffy the $90,000. (LINK) In fact, Harper was incredulous over the Opposition demanding Wright's resignation; choosing instead to keep Wright in place and ensuring Canadians through his then spokesman that "Mr. Wright has the full confidence of the prime minister." Wright resigned two days later, with Harper thanking him for his years of service to the PMO.

In fact, the Conservatives even lauded Wright for his action. After all, his payment ensured that taxpayers were not on the hook for the expenses. (LINK) Harper now says he had every right to be kept in the loop on this issue by Wright. He also says that he would never have approved this 'scheme' of repayment; despite the fact that Harper and several cabinet ministers praised Wright's repayment on behalf of taxpayers.

All of this from a man who, two days before his resignation, enjoyed the 'full confidence of the Prime Minister.'

Of course, though, this is hardly the first time the Prime Minister and his cabinet have changed their minds. When news of Pamela Wallin's involvement became known, for example, Thomas Mulcair asked the Prime Minister about it.


The relevant portion is at the 1:06 mark; or you can just read what he said here:

“I’ve looked at the numbers, her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian, traveling from that particular area of the country over that period of time."

It wasn't until the audit numbers from Deloitte came out, and Wallin's travel budget of $120,000 raised public ire, that the Prime Minister tossed her aside with Duffy and Brazeau. But then that raises a unique question: What numbers did Harper look at?

If he looked at her numbers, you would assume a 'trained economist' could see the trouble with her expenses. So, either Harper looked at her numbers and lied in the Commons about what he saw; OR he didn't look at her numbers, and lied about saying that he did. Either way, the Prime Minister lied about something here.

I suppose you could argue that Harper may not have seen all of Wallin's receipts; but that is troubling in and of itself. And, if you take it with Nigel Wright holding back secrets, it makes it look like Stephen Harper is a Prime Minister who consistently has things hidden from him by his inner circle. That's a troubling thought, as it makes you begin to wonder just who is leading the country at that point, so I'm sure the Conservatives would never dare dream to use it as a defense.

And as noted, this is now almost month six of this scandal. With each passing month, it got worse and worse and it was becoming clear that it was not going to go away. Yet, the Prime Minister and his party did not dream about punishment for the Senators. Apparently, not being allowed to be a Conservative is the highest punishment they can dream up.

There was no push for their suspension. There was no push to completely remove them from the Senate. Hell, there was barely a push to garnish wages for Wallin and Brazeau as a means of repayment for their expenses. It was almost as if Harper thought he could make the issue go away by doing nothing.

Instead of dealing the Senators immediately, Harper did nothing. He even prorogued Parliament, effectively preventing the Senate from debating action. And now, in the face of overwhelming public anger, he finally seems ready to do something about those troublesome Senators of his...Except for the ones he apparently still has a use for.

On the fringes of this argument over expenses, there has been the lingering question of Senators always taking from the public purse. After all, it was only recently that a reform was passed that changed the nature of per diem claims while in Ottawa. In fact, there are other Senators that are underfire for expenses and misuse of Senate resources. Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, one of the Senators called out by Wallin for a personal vendetta, for example is one such Senator.

Stewart-Olsen served on the Senate Committee that oversaw the audit process; in which Duffy claims she and Senator David Tkachuk white-washed his audit after his agreement to repay his expenses. Stewart-Olsen has since excused herself from the committee and is under investigation into claims of overspending and claiming housing expenses and per diems while not on Senate business. (LINK) (LINK)

Conservatives LeBreton and Tkachuk have some things to answer for with their alleged roles in white-washing the Duffy audit (LINK); which seems to confirm at least that Duffy did indeed have a deal in place with regards to the audit and his repayment. 

Many online commentators have already called attention to the double standard being put to use here by the Prime Minister; as Stewart-Olsen stands accused of committing the same breach of the public trust as the other three, yet there has been no call for her suspension from the Senate. Add to that a role in 'amending' a Senate document, and there should be calls for her and Tkatchuk's head in addition to the Senators they were investigating.

Yet no cry is coming from the PMO, the Cabinet, The Prime Minister, or the Conservative Party. Furthermore, all three Senators have yet to have charges laid against them in this matter. Brazeau has charges pending in an unrelated matter, but as far as the Senate Expenses go, they're all in the clear for now. The same cannot be said about former Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Dean Del Mastro. Del Mastro has been charged of being in violation of the Elections Act, with regards to overspending.

Despite this, and it being a case which directly relates to his standing as a Member of Parliament, his resignation from the Conservative Party has been his only punishment. He is still allowed to sit in the Commons, and collect his wages and benefits despite criminal charges. For a Prime Minister who has talked about being tough on crime, and been in favour of 'removing' those who violated the public trust, this is a glaring absence. There is also growing cries of impropriety over newly minted Minister Kellie Leitch and her lack of declaring income from Dundee Reality Corp. (LINK)

So, why so tough on the Senate and not on his Cabinet?

In another case of the right hand apparently not knowing what the left hand is doing, Government Senator Leader Claude Carignan found himself in an awkward position when Patrick Brazeau stood on the Senate Floor and suggested Carignan offered him a 'backroom deal' for a lighter penalty. (LINK)

I'll give Carignan credit for at least admitting he spoke to Brazeau, but he is still trying to spin it as something less than a deal and more as a friendly word of advice.

Carignan has since gone on to say, in general, that he is open to amendments and other punishments for the three Senators. In the course of a few short days, we've gone from hearing the Prime Minister demand the suspension of the three members immediately, to his party's leader in the Senate musing about other possible options.

Carignan seems open to leniency for Wallin and Brazeau (LINK); Wallin for making a good case and plea, and Brazeau for possibly making an honest mistake in his expense. He has no such mercy for Duffy, who he wrote off as being more interested in settling political scores.

It seems unlikely that Carignan will actually accept lesser punishment for any of the three Senators; after all, his boss (Harper) has made it clear that he will accept nothing less than suspension for the three. But there is a small number of Conservative Senators, including past Party President Don Plett, calling for a slower and more processed response.

Liberal Senate leader James Cowan has called for a Senate Committee to be created to hear and deal with this issue; a prospect which must scare the hell out of the Prime Minister, due to the potential for more documents, witnesses, and other factors to come into play that may contradict his 'out of the loop' defense.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the Senate; and whether or not the three Senators will survive long enough to be given a chance to fully present their side of the story. And while the three have violated Senate rules, unquestionably, there remains questions as to why these three were singled out against other violators like Carolyn Stewart-Olsen; or people under investigation by the RCMP who have charges laid, like Dean Del Mastro.

The audits revealed improper spending, there is no question about that. But it is slowly becoming less and less about that as the Senators have essentially neutralized the issue.Wallin has begun making repayments. Brazeau is having his salary garnished until repaid (by the way, if they suspend him without pay, what happens to the repayment structure?)

But what matters more is Duffy and the $90,000 cheque from the PMO. The story here has changed so many times, it's hard to keep track of all the permutations. At first it was a gift between friends. Then it was discovered that Wright and Duffy were less than friends. Then it became Wright's conviction that it was the right thing to do. Then it was the Conservative Party itself that was going to pay back the expenses, but change their mind when the number was three times higher than expected.

Throughout it all, Harper has said Wright acted alone. But more and more people from the PMO, and the Senate Conservative Leadership, have been implicated as time goes on. In fact, Conservative Defender Extraordinaire Arthur Hamilton's name has been added to the list of potentially included individuals. The law firm Hamilton works for was mentioned as handing the bank draft that paid Duffy. (LINK)

Occam's razor would suggest that Harper indeed knew what was going on in his own office, with his own key players. And now, we're just waiting for the final piece of evidence that confirms what the majority of Canadians already feel: That the Prime Minister knew of, and was complacent in this issue.

The real problem rests with what happens after that. After all, he already has one motion of contempt under his belt and his political career survived just fine. Without any real teeth to punish him, other than the death of his political career, it's sort of surprising that Harper just hasn't come out with the truth already.

And that's why this issue matters.

It's not just about breaching the public trust in the Senate, it's about how we deal with those who violate the public trust. And right now, contempt of Parliament is an empty measure. So what if Harper is found, again, in contempt of Parliament? He still has two years to push through any agenda he wants until the next election.

If anything, this issue needs to call attention to the fact that Canadians have no real lever against politicians who mislead the public. And that is where our system fails us, and the three Senators in question. There is no clear cut disciplinary actions that can be invoked without majority support. There is nothing that can be done to a Prime Minister who has been found to be lying to the Canadian public.

And that should concern you. If we're going to throw three Senators under the bus, let's at least have some good come out of it and see some reform in establishing clear disciplinary actions. After all, we may have cause to use them against certain Parliamentarians when the smoke finally clears.

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