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Christie Blatchford: Former Senate law clerk gives Duffy trial a lesson in honour



Christie Blatchford 

April 10, 2015


OTTAWA — What Mark Audcent did for the Senate this week was almost unimaginable: He put a little of the H back in honourable.

The former law clerk for the Red Chamber testified for three days at the fraud, bribery and breach-of-trust trial of the suspended senator Mike Duffy.

Duffy is pleading not guilty to 31 counts and of course could end up being fully acquitted by Ontario Court Judge Charles Vaillancourt.

Yet the grimy details of the charges alone, the conduct underlying at least some of which is not disputed, have dirtied an institution already properly regarded with contempt by many Canadians.

Among other things, on the day after he was named to the Senate in December of 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Duffy began claiming expenses for living in his own Ottawa house as though he had not lived and worked in the capital for decades, and was actually coming there from Prince Edward Island, the province where he was born and which he was appointed to represent.

His defence isn’t that he didn’t do this — the per diem claim forms in evidence show he did — but rather that because of the unfettered licence to bill that senators give themselves, it wasn’t even wrong, let alone criminal.

In other words, even in week one, it’s clear that regardless of outcome, this trial most days may leave everyone wanting a good shower.

Enter Audcent, who retired last year after 32 years in the Senate, 17 as the Senate law clerk and parliamentary counsel.

A lawyer by training, his dealings with individual senators protected by solicitor-client privilege, and I suspect naturally discreet, Audcent was always erudite and careful in his answers.

But there were glimpses here and there that revealed how very much he believes in genuine public service and how dear to his heart are the noble traditions of the “Honourable Chamber.”

When, for instance, he was asked Friday by prosecutor Mark Holmes in re-examination about the “honour principle,” which is the presumption that senators will act honourably, Audcent said, “I think it applies to everyone…. We’re all expected, wherever we work, to be honest and we’re expected to be decent.”

That presumption, he said, “infused the Senate throughout much of my career … but now we’re getting into a world of controls and checks.” It’s a more bureaucratic, administrative planet, he said, harkening back to something he mentioned earlier, about the Charter of Rights ushering in a sort of “show me” mentality, where citizens want to be pointed to various rules or procedures.

Still, he said, even now, “there’s a cultural presumption within the institution” of the Senate that its members will do the right thing and can be trusted, and, he added, there’s “a culture of respect of senators” too.

“I mean,” he said, “they are senators of Canada.”

Holmes asked if he thought the “principles of public life” — integrity, accountability, honesty and transparency — provided any sort of fetter upon senatorial conduct.

Audcent said: “I’m not sure I see it as a fetter, but it feeds the action of public life in the Senate. This is what’s expected of everyone in public life.”

He isn’t naïve. He appreciates full well the inherently partisan nature of the Senate, as was best illustrated in his interpretation of a Jan. 6, 2009 letter Duffy and Pamela Wallin, another senator-in-trouble, received from a policy advisor named Christopher McCreery, who then worked for Senator Marjory LeBreton, at the time the government leader in the Senate.

The letter basically told the two then-rookie senators not to worry about whether they actually lived respectively in P.E.I. and Saskatchewan because the Senate had never disqualified a senator because of residency, even if they lived “in Ottawa 99% of the time.”

Upon reflection, Audcent said, it was clear to him that McCreery was saying look, “the way the politics is gonna work is that as long as you own property (in the provinces you represent), your qualification is not going to be challenged in the Senate…. It’s not a legal opinion, it’s a political one.”

At the end of his testimony, Holmes having wrapped up a mercifully brief re-examination, Audcent asked if he might be permitted to speak for a minute.

For a second, in the courtroom, reportorial hearts soared: Was there a bombshell coming?

But no, Audcent said he hoped he might be able to shed some light on what the terms “public business,” “official business” and “parliamentary functions” mean.

And then he delivered a wee history lesson, running through it the moral code of an honourable man, that was a reminder of all the good that lies beneath the sheen of scum on Ottawa waters — everything, as an old friend reminded me, from the rule of law to the essential fairness of Parliament, and those like Mark Audcent, defending in his way as Cpl. Nathan Cirillo did in his, what is so good about this country.

National Post


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