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Andrew Coyne: The real scandal is what politicians can get away with legally

Andrew Coyne, National Post

April 11, 2015


It is a fascinating case Mike Duffy’s lawyer is attempting to present in that Ottawa courtroom. The senator could not have broken Senate rules on spending because there are no Senate rules on spending. “Senate business” is whatever business a senator does. A senator’s primary residence is wherever he says it is.

His driver’s licence may be from Ontario, his health card may be from Ontario, he may pay his taxes in Ontario, the house in Prince Edward Island he supposedly lives in may not even be winterized, but if he says he’s from P.E.I., he’s from P.E.I., and is entitled to claim a monthly allowance for expenses incurred “travelling” to and from the house in suburban Ottawa he has inhabited for many years. Because the rules don’t explicitly say that he can’t, and nobody else in the Senate’s apparently deserted corridors told him he couldn’t. I was just following disorders.

Whether this will allow Duffy to escape jail we shall see. It certainly can’t have helped in the court of public opinion: even by the impossibly lax standards of the Senate (about which the auditor general will inform us later this spring) he seems to have set new records. What his defence has gone a long way to establish, however, is how much of what the senator was up to was the product of a broader political culture. Indeed it was arguably a part of his job description.

I don’t mean the housing stuff, or hiring a contractor allegedly to funnel money to suppliers of various personal services, or the whole matter of the $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright. But it is clear the senator spent relatively little time doing the people’s business, compared to the vast amounts of time he put in doing the party’s business, making speeches, attending fundraisers and the like, in cities and towns across the country, much of it on the public dime.

And he did so, what is more, with the express approval of his political bosses. When Stephen Harper signed his photo with a hearty shout-out to “one of my best, hardest-working appointments,” he wasn’t referring to the exacting scrutiny Sen. Duffy was giving his legislation in the chamber of sober second thought. One can imagine, then, the senator’s distaste for the kind of hypocrisy that would single him out for punishment.

Whether or not doing partisan work at public expense was against the Senate’s non-existent rules would seem to be a secondary question. If it isn’t, it should be; so far as the rules do allow it, it shows the problem is much worse than one errant senator. The habit of parties helping themselves to the public’s money is deeply ingrained, and one that none of them seems to feel the slightest shame over.

It is instructive that even as we are discussing the improper use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes in the Senate, a similar controversy is unfolding, in another place: specifically, over the government’s use of public funds to pay for government advertising — a $7.5 million post-budget buy, 10 times as much in fiscal 2014, a half-billion over the last five years. Ostensibly, as government ministers maintain, straight-faced, this is to help Canadians take full advantage of the programs available.

But no one is fooled, because everyone has seen this before. That’s what the Conservatives rely on: when called out on it by the Liberals, in particular, the standard-drill Tory response is to roll their eyes and guffaw at the irony of Liberals, of all people, asking about abuse of government advertising. Message: if they did it, so can we. Unintended message: when it comes to ethics, we’re no better than the Chrétien Liberals.

Meanwhile, yet another controversy drags on, this one between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, over the latter’s maintenance of “satellite offices,” using  its parliamentary allotment, in ridings far from Parliament Hill. The issue turns on the kind of arcane distinctions in which the parties like to seek refuge — what’s parliamentary politics, as opposed to constituency politics — but at bottom it’s the same thing: using public dollars for partisan purposes.


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