What is most remarkable about Stephen Harper as Prime Minister has been the tenacity of his brand. Apparently made of Teflon. Two recent books, Mark Bourrie’s Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know (Harper Collins 2015), and Michael Harris’s Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover (Viking, 2014) catalogue his track record. On a litany of issues, over the entire term of his office, he has stirred hornets’ nests of opposition.
Criticism that would be expected from the Official Opposition, has come from independent Officers of Parliament, from brave civil servants who have given up their positions for their principles, and from a host of knowledgeable people (dare I say “experts”?) across the country: scientists, economists, veterans, health care professionals, lawyers, chiefs of police, planners, even members of the business community. Controlling, consistently partisan, he has used his majority to impose many laws for non-problems which are dysfunctional, fly in the face of the evidence, and are often blatantly unconstitutional. Former Progressive Conservatives have shaken their heads in despair at how his anti-intellectual populism, his contempt for Parliament and the Supreme Court, and his pandering to the “old country” politics of some new Canadians has hijacked Canadian conservatism. And now he vilifies a young woman wearing her niqab at a citizenship ceremony apparently to ally himself with xenophobic Quebecers who championed their shameful “Charter of Values.” For all that, he is considered a “brilliant politician,” who caters to his base, rides out the storms, and appears set for re-election.
Now we have the trial of Senator Mike Duffy, on 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery relating to residency expense claims, expense claims unrelated to Senate business, awarding of consulting contracts, and accepting $90,000 from Prime Minister Harper’s Chief of Staff Nigel Wright. Commentators differ on what effect this trial will have on the upcoming federal election. Clearly, it is the talk of the town in Ottawa, and among “the chattering classes” and political junkies across the country. They will dine on the morsels of meat which the media gleans each day from hours of evidence which may seem irrelevant to some. But the average person on the street? Some commentators say that the trial is no more than a rehash of an old story which burned itself out last year, and there is nothing new to add. The average voter, they say, is cynical about politics and politicians, has already written off Duffy as just another “pig at the trough,” and “doesn’t care” how it relates, if at all, to Prime Minister Harper. And besides, the Prime Minister will divert attention from the trial with his upcoming budget, the publicly funded “infomercials” about his promised tax breaks “to families,” and fears of terrorism in our midst.
But is this true? There are certain key facts about this case:
1) Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Mike Duffy to the Canadian Senate in December 2008 to fill a vacant seat representing Prince Edward Island.
2) At that time, Mike Duffy had lived in Ottawa for over 20 years. His connection to P.E.I. was that the island was his place of birth and he owned a cottage there. On the first day of trial, Mark Holmes, the Crown Attorney prosecuting the case, appeared to concede that Duffy probably didn’t qualify for the position.
3) When issues were raised about Duffy’s claiming certain expenses relating to his residence, there were ongoing discussions between Duffy, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Conservative party. Ultimately, Nigel Wright, the Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Harper used $90,000 from his personal funds for Duffy to repay his disputed expenses.
Duffy’s defence is that he had no intent to commit the crimes with which he has been charged. Whatever Duffy did, he says he did at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office and consistent with the practices then prevailing in the Senate. Whether he is ultimately convicted or not, his relationship with the Harper government is crucial.
The irony of this case is juicy, indeed. Stephen Harper was elected to office on a platform to promote transparency and accountability in government. He has won kudos from his base for his “tough on crime” “law and order” agenda. He went to the Supreme Court of Canada on a reference asserting (wrongly) that his federal government alone could change the Senate. Yet here he is, the elephant in the room, as his personal appointee to the Senate exposes the bending of the rules, the partisan role of senators, the relationship between senators and the PMO, and the utter lack of accountability which appears to prevail. It’s a unique scandal, but it strikes at the heart of the Harper government and what it is supposed to stand for. Is this the last straw which tarnishes the Teflon? Will the Duffy trial, as Michael Den Tandt says in the National Post, be “Harper’s Waterloo”? The trial continues April 7th – May 12th and June 1st – 19th. We’ll see.
Christie Blatchford, who is following the trial in detail, ended the first week of the trial “a little optimistic.” For all the sleazy detail of how the Senate runs, she praised retired Senate law clerk, Mark Audcent, the first witness, for his concluding “lesson in honour,” reminding the court of the standards of integrity, accountability, transparency and service which the public expects. Check out her video.
***** I have posted a brief legal observation on the Mike Duffy trial in Re-view from the Bench.