Jun 032013
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Duffygate and Wallingate linger because real issue is government integrity.

by Geoffrey Stevens

The Senate expenses scandal — starring Duff, Pam, Nigel, Stephen and all the lesser lights — may be fine political theatre. But it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans — or loonies.

This is penny-ante stuff, a drop in the old Ottawa bucket. So Mike Duffy collected $90,000-odd in housing allowances, and Nigel Wright tried to save Old Duff’s butt by paying the piper, with or without (we’re not sure yet) telling his boss, the prime minister. It looks as though Duffy also did some double-dipping on his expenses. But if that’s fraud, it’s petty fraud.

The same with Pamela Wallin. She’s being investigated for $300,000-plus in travel expenses to places other than her home in Wadena, Saskatchewan. That’s a lot, but it’s probably all that is going to be found in her case. Then there are Senators Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau — also small potatoes. Even if more rotten spuds were uncovered, chances are the total fraud won’t come to more than a couple of million dollars.

Perhaps it is easier for people to understand the ethics of chiseling on expense accounts, then trying to cover it up, than it is to grasp the significance of shuttering Parliament.

These sums are not insignificant, but they look that way on the Richter scale of Ottawa spending. Remember, the Chrétien Liberal government blew $100-million-plus in the sponsorship affair. The Harper Conservative government diverted $50-million from border security to invest in gazebos and other cosmetic enhancements in Tony Clement’s riding.

Duffy buck video by Deep Rogue Ram

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In 2011-12 (the last year for which figures are available), the Tories spent $21 million on those self-serving “economic action plan” ads; that waste continues to this day. Some might argue that the government is wasting another $100 million on the Senate; that’s what it costs, approximately, to keep the 105-member upper house operating for a year.

The point, of course, is not the number of dollars in the Senate scandal; if that’s all it were, the scandal would have blown over. Instead, it shows no sign of abating. It has fueled outrage in Parliament, stern lectures on editorial pages and plenty of humour on internet.

One of my favourites is the “Duffy Buck.” It’s a $90,000 banknote bearing a portrait of the senator and a security strip with a likeness of Nigel Wright. When you hold the bill to the light, Nigel winks at you.

There’s also entertainment value, I suppose, in watching Conservatives who were once admirers and staunch defenders of the besieged senators scrambling to avoid the fallout. Senator David Tkachuk, who led the whitewashing of a committee report to protect the good name of Old Duff, now says, “Of course, (Duffy) was lying.” And in a different context Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, last week dismissed Duffy as “delusional.”

Prime Minister Harper, who previously had defended Duffy and Wallin, has cut both loose. Last February, he said he had looked at Wallin’s travel expenses and they passed the smell test. No, actually, he hadn’t or they didn’t.  Harper now says, “If she has in any way acted improperly, she will be subject to the appropriate authorities and the consequences for those actions.”

The integrity of the government is the big issue. Voters gave Harper the benefit of the doubt by accepting his word on earlier occasions — notably when he prorogued Parliament to avoid opposition questioning — but this Senate scandal has a different feel. Perhaps it is easier for people to understand the ethics of chiseling on expense accounts, then trying to cover it up, than it is to grasp the significance of shuttering Parliament.

According to an Ipsos Reid poll last week, only 13 percent of Canadians believed Harper was truthful when he said he had no knowledge of his chief of staff’s $90,000 gift to Duffy. A few years ago, 12-13 [ercemt of Americans told pollsters they believed Elvis was still alive. That number is now down to 8 per cent. So perhaps we’ll see a new Tory ad: “More people believe Harper than think Elvis still lives.”

About Geoffrey Stevens

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

© Copyright 2013 Geoffrey Stevens, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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