Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Six key points for understanding Harper's Senate scandal

| May 23, 2013
Six key points for understanding Harper's Senate scandal

What did Harper know and when did he know it? Our parliamentary reporter looks at this and five other key points in the growing Senate expense scandal. 

1. Rules for all Senators "very clear" -- except for Senator Duffy

The Conservative majority on the Senate Committee on Internal Economy said the rules on housing allowances for Senators were "very clear" and "unambiguous."

That is, they were clear and unambiguous for Senators Harb and Brazeau.

They were somehow not so clear for Senator Duffy.

Now, we know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that the philosophic school of idealistic solipsism posited that there is no objective reality. What seems real, say the solipsists, is merely the chimerical stuff of dreams.

The common sense view, however, is that rules are rules and cannot have different meanings for different people. When the traffic light at the end of the block turns red, it means stop for everyone, even Senator Duffy.

2. The 'whitewashed' Committee report on Duffy

The Senate Internal Economy Committee's report on Duffy was altered after it was written -- something unprecedented in Canadian parliamentary history. Nobody has given an explanation for that -- save for the fact that Duffy had 'paid back' the $90,000 owing and the other Senators had not. Who intervened to see to it that the report was altered?

If it was the Prime Minister's Office, it may be very difficult to find a paper (or e-mail) trail to prove that. We must remember, though, that Duffy said he would remain silent and cease to cooperate with the Deloitte and Touche audit into Senators' housing expenses on -- his words -- "orders from the PMO."

3. No public meetings

Now that the Senate Internal Economy Committee is once again considering this matter -- believe it or not, the Prime Minister referred to the Committee’s renewed inquiry as an "independent investigation" -- it could choose to hold public meetings.

James Cowan, Liberal Leader in the Senate, made just such a request, but the Conservative majority on the Committee has refused.

4. Wallin's strange travel patterns

Senator Pamela Wallin's case is not a housing issue. Her problems have to do with travel on the taxpayers' dime, and whether that travel was for legitimate government business or for partisan purposes. There is also some question of her odd practice of travelling 'home' to Saskatchewan via other places, such as Toronto, where she actually maintains her principal residence.

5. What did the PM know and when?

Former Harper Chief of Staff Nigel Wright's $90,000 payment to Duffy only became public by accident. The voluble PEI Senator apparently boasted about it to too many people and the media found out. The Prime Minister claims he knew nothing until the media broke the story, and would have put a stop to the payment had he known.

But the Prime Minister's position on this has evolved. When the story broke, his spokespeople, such as MP Pierre Poilievre, praised Wright for sparing the taxpayers' $90,000. The Prime Minister took the better part of a week to decide he disapproved of Wright’s payment and say that in public. Even when addressing his caucus on Monday he made no mention of his disapproval.

The question is: why has the Prime Minister changed his view? And, despite Harper's claims of utter ignorance, is it believable that he knew nothing until the story of Wright's pay-off became public? If Harper were as shocked and angry to learn this as he says he was, why did it take a number of days for that shock and anger to manifest itself?

Remember, the Prime Minister did not seek Wright's resignation over this affair -- even though he now says he utterly disapproved of Wright's decision to pay the $90,000. If the Prime Minister had been ignorant until informed by the media, and had genuinely disapproved of the payment, would he not have demanded that Wright resign the minute he got the news?

The Prime Minister did the opposite. He and his colleagues staunchly defended Wright, at first, even though the $90,000 payment very obviously crossed a number of ethical -- and possibly even legal -- lines.

6. The Harper record on transparency, accountability -- and, more important -- democracy.

In his statement to his caucus on Monday, the Prime Minister touted his Government's record on accountability. He made specific reference to the 2006 Accountability Act, which did tighten a number of rules, especially concerning lobbying -- although that work had been started by the Chrétien/Martin governments.

Harper pointedly made no mention of the Parliamentary Budget Office, which the Accountability Act created, but which the Conservatives have tried to sabotage and hobble almost from the day of its inception.

Harper also made no mention of his Government's naming of Conservative donors to the Employment Insurance Commission (against the rules), nor of its continued use of contracting firms that have been found guilty of bid rigging.

After touting his Government's strengthening of the Auditor General (AG) office, the Prime Minister neglected to mention the Government's utter failure to follow up on the AG's recommendations for the funding of services to First Nations communities.

It is now more than two years since the AG reported that the system for financing education and other First Nations services is completely dysfunctional.

The Government has promised to act on the AG's recommendations, but so far has only succeeded in passing other legislation that defies Aboriginal rights, while slotting a rotating cast of do-nothing Ministers into the Aboriginal Affairs job.

And, of course, the Prime Minister failed to mention the most outrageous way in which his Government has totally defied all principles of transparency and accountability: his use of massive omnibus legislation to ram through major legislative changes -- changes that have an impact on the environment, law and order, social affairs, First Nations, transport and many other matters, with nary a shred of serious discussion or examination.

Harper and his team have hoped all along that their high-handed and arrogant defiance of the basic rules of parliamentary democracy would seem like so much incomprehensible 'process-y' 'inside baseball' stuff to most voters. Unfortunately for them, the Senate scandal is one in which even the casual observer can see the outrageous elements.

The Conservatives' basic disregard for democracy, however, is the true scandal for which this Government is responsible. And we don't have to hunt for the smoking gun for that one. It is right in front of us.

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