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It is not a Senate scandal: Harper and his choices are what's really scandalous

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The Conservative government is now running Orwellian television ads touting its environmental record.

After reducing the federal environmental role to virtually nothing, radically limiting fisheries protection, scrapping the Navigable Waters Act, chopping the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, and withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord, the Harper government now wants to convince Canadians it is has a strong environmental record.

That effort is a textbook case of chutzpah.

And please note: these ads are not paid for by the Conservative Party; they are paid for by all Canadian taxpayers.

They are part of the official Canada's Economic Action Plan series -- a series that has probably been the most blatant use of public dollars for purely partisan, political purposes in Canadian history.

The most recent ad is about as factually true as that now infamous 1940s ad where a white-coated doctor shilled for Camel cigarettes.

This abusive practice -- especially when coupled with the completely undemocratic way in which Harper has shoved his legislative agenda through Parliament in the form of monster-size omnibus bills -- is the true scandal of this Conservative government.

But the follies of appointed, fat-cat Senators dipping a bit too deep into the trough make better copy.

The definition of 'resident' -- the question remains

The Conservative hierarchy is now trying to distance itself from Senators Wallin and Duffy.

But the Prime Minister is the one who appointed both, and, from day one, they were outrageous -- and probably illegal -- appointments.

The BNA Act states clearly that Senators must be "resident" of the provinces they represent.

When Harper boosted them to the Upper House, there was no common-sense way in which either Duffy or Wallin could be considered "residents" of PEI or Saskatchewan.

So far, no Opposition politician has put that basic question to Harper. That is: "On the day the Prime Minister appointed Duffy and Wallin to the Senate did he consider them to be, as required by the Constitution, residents of PEI and Saskatchewan?"

And a corollary to that question would be: "If the Prime Minister did believe Senators Wallin and Duffy to be residents of those provinces, on what definition of 'resident' was he relying?"

For the longest time, Harper's Leader in the Senate, Marjorie LeBreton, argued that Wallin and Duffy did indeed qualify as "residents" because of their longstanding and ongoing connections to those notionally home provinces.

Or, as Duffy, himself, somewhat more poetically put it: "My heart is in PEI."

Senior Conservatives have now, for the most part, dropped that silly defence.

Still, there are those who continue to argue that the term 'resident' in the BNA Act is undefined. They claim that constitutional lawyers will tell you there are a number of different ways to define the concept of resident.

Well, nobody has yet produced any definition of 'resident' that would include a person who was born and raised in a province, moved away from that province many decades ago, but maintains family relationships, connections, friendships and vacation property in that province.

If there are those who really believe there is a constitutional definition of 'resident' that can be stretched to include Wallin and Duffy, let them produce that definition.

Some, such as Carleton University professor Ian Lee, make the argument that since Senators must spend so much time in Ottawa, they cannot, as a practical matter, meet the legal residency requirements of most provinces.

First, that argument is not borne out by the facts.

In reality, almost all Senators (now and in the past) continue to officially and legally reside in the provinces they represent.

"Official" sitting days on the Senate calendar that is published online (and on which Lee relied) far exceed the actual sitting days, when Senators should be present.

In practice, Senators have a great deal of down time -- far more than the much busier members of the House of Commons -- during which they can go home and easily maintain their legal resident status.

And that is what the vast and overwhelming majority of Senators do.

Second, the key issue in Harper's appointments of Duffy and Wallin is not where they bunk now, but where the two were 'resident' at the time they were named.

The Prime Minister knew perfectly well that both, indeed, lived -- and had lived for many decades -- in Ontario. For political reasons, however, he wanted to appoint them for PEI and Saskatchewan.

Those choices were entirely the Prime Minister's responsibility. He cannot blame anyone else, or claim ignorance, for that.

Oddly, Harper has not yet been forced to publicly justify those choices.

The focus should be on Nigel Wright and the PMO’s role

In addition, in pushing away from the two former star Senator-fundraisers, Conservatives hope Canadians will forget that the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff 'gave' $90,000 to a sitting Senator in order to allow that Senator to pay back what he owed the government.

Nobody has seen that $90,000 cheque. We do not know on what account it was drawn. And the Harper government has not made public any records of any official communication on this matter.

The Prime Minister expects Canadians to simply believe him when he says he learned of the Wright payment when the rest of us did -- although Harper's and other leading Conservatives' words and actions at that time entirely belie that disingenuous claim.

If the Prime Minister were truly so outraged by the Wright payment he would have fired his Chief of Staff on the spot.

Instead, Harper and his surrogates, such as LeBreton and Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, actually praised Wright, and characterized him as a kind of selfless patriot.

The focus on Duffy -- now that the Conservatives are busy leaking all kinds of ridiculous self-aggrandizing e-mails the PEI Senator wrote -- should not be allowed to detract from the central role of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's Office in this affair.

That role is what is truly scandalous -- not the self-delusions of one swollen-headed broadcaster turned Senator.

And then, there is still Senator Wallin.

The Prime Minister, from the outset of the controversy over Senate housing and travel spending, quite enthusiastically defended his Senator from Wadena, Sask. The Ottawa rumour ill mill has it that Harper even seriously considered dumping LeBreton as his Senate Leader and naming Wallin in her place.

Harper said, in the House, that he had personally examined Wallin’s expense forms and found them to be justified.

Now, it appears Wallin plans to reimburse the taxpayers for a good deal of those "justified" expenses.

Indeed, she has, it seems, already paid back $40,000. Plus, she is out of the Conservative caucus -- possibly for good.

It will be interesting to hear Harper explain why he so recently believed Wallin’s expenses were all in order. 

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