Duffy himself certainly didn’t ‘win’ — not entirely. Contrary to what you may have read on this page and elsewhere, Duffy was neither vindicated nor exonerated. “Not guilty” and “innocent” are still two very different things.
Although Justice Charles Vaillancourt found Duffy to be a credible witness and a hard-working guy, at no time was he deemed honourable, diligent in filing his expense claims — or even non-opportunistic. Duffy’s reputation remains largely in tatters. Given the financial strain of being suspended from the Senate without pay, coupled with his legal bills, he has suffered immeasurably.
The Senate as an institution has been profoundly discredited. This archaic institution initially was inhabited by men of privilege (no need for expense rules when the occupants are all ‘Honourable Gentlemen’, you understand) — but when Canada’s aristocracy gave way to wave after wave of political hacks, nobody thought any accountability or financial oversight would be required. You can’t be convicted of breaking rules that either don’t exist or are too vague to be meaningful.
Undoubtedly, Justice Vaillancourt reserved his harshest criticism for the Harper PMO. A series of secret manoeuvres worthy of House of Cards’ fictional President Frank Underwood led to a sitting judge describing PMO operatives as master manipulators, ignoring all moral and legal considerations in the interests of scandal management.
It was a stunning rebuke — and it wasn’t really stunning at all. Micromanaging MPs and senators, sanitizing a Senate audit, interfering with an independent audit and attempting to cover it all up — it all seems like just another day at the office for PMO staffers in the spring of 2013.
For context, put yourself in my shoes for a moment. Back in the early winter and spring of 2013, as a lesser-known member of the Conservative caucus, I was waging a battle of my own against the ‘boys in short pants’. The caucus overwhelmingly supported my private member’s bill to provide disclosure of the salaries, bonuses and expenses of the most senior members of Canada’s public service, including the CBC. PMO policy advisors supported the disclosure bill — until the Senate expense scandal erupted and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s people kiboshed it.
Exasperated staffers could not understand why I didn’t understand that a PM under daily attack over Senate expenses should not be forced to defend the salaries and expenses of other senior civil servants. And when I couldn’t be persuaded to ‘take one for the team’, the short-pants kids went to work. Eviscerating amendments were introduced at committee. MPs were substituted on committee to make sure that the matter was decided by compliant team members, rather than by the regular committee members who were being lobbied to save the bill.
The people in the Harper PMO believed that there was no moving part inside the Ottawa bubble beyond their reach and control. And because promotion within both the Senate and Commons caucuses is based in large part on building up capital with the prime minister and his people, these young zealots’ sense of omnipotence tends to become a working reality.
Last week, my former caucus colleague Candice Bergen claimed that she was never micromanaged by staffers at the PMO. With all due respect to her, I see only two possibilities here: Either she’s still in denial, or those PMO staffers were so good at their jobs she never realized she was being manipulated.
When I was in caucus, I could measure with an egg timer the time it would take for PMO Issues Management to call and demand changes to any blog I posted that was even constructively critical of the government. When logic failed them, they were never beneath threatening an MP — with committee reassignment, with refusing to sign future nomination papers, even with caucus expulsion.
The ones losing the most through this sort of behaviour are, of course, ordinary taxpayers. They’re the ones paying for PMO staffers that serve not the public interest, but only the interest of the sitting prime minister. They’re also the ones on the hook for the entire dysfunctional Senate. It looks like the disputed expense claims of Duffy, Senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau will never be repaid. Taxpayers also bore the entire cost of Duffy’s interminable trial — for the Crown prosecutors and RCMP investigators who went 0 for 31.
Nobody was vindicated and nobody won — with the possible exception of Netflix producers looking to borrow some plot points.
Author: Brent Rathgeber