Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Senate scandal wins race

Ongoing story that could shape Canada's political future beats Ford antics

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The Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill: Winnipeg Free Press readers picked the expense scandal as the story of the year, and it could help determine the outcome of the next election.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

The Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill: Winnipeg Free Press readers picked the expense scandal as the story of the year, and it could help determine the outcome of the next election.

Journalists love to say it is not the crime, but rather the coverup, that becomes a politician's undoing.

Never has that been more true than in the still-simmering Senate expense scandal, the Free Press national story of the year.

What started out in June 2012 as a mundane review of expenses submitted by senators has turned into a scandal that will likely help determine the outcome of the next election.

It was hard to identify a single national story of the year. It will come as no surprise that it was a neck-and-neck race with Toronto's crack-smoking, wisecracking, wreck of a mayor, Rob Ford. In the end, however, the Senate expense scandal has the potential to shape the political future of Canada.

It is not, however, an easy story to follow. Other than the fact "Senate expenses" seems to be a phrase on everyone's lips these days, it may be hard for some to identify the specific crimes and misdemeanours that are dogging Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government.

Simply put, this is a story of a governing party using its power and influence to sweep away details of expense transgressions by members of its Senate caucus. And then, having been caught in that first coverup, further attempting to manipulate reviews and investigations to contain the matter.

The scandal has four principal characters -- Tory Sens. Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, and former Liberal senator Mac Harb.

All four were flagged by an audit as having improperly claimed living and (in the case of Wallin) travel expenses. All four have either been suspended, or have resigned from the upper chamber.

Arcane residency rules are, regardless of whose side you take, at the heart of the expense scandal.

Senators are required to live in the provinces they represent in the upper chamber. The rules also state senators can claim generous per diems and housing expenses to maintain a residence in Ottawa as long as they also pay to maintain a primary residence in the province they represent.

The rules are not problematic, in and of themselves. However, many senators are appointed to represent provinces they may have been born in, but have not lived in for decades. This was certainly the issue that originally ensnared Duffy and Wallin. It appears Brazeau may not have had a primary residence when he was appointed, and Harb had at least two other properties but neither served as his primary residence.

The scandal starts with concerns the senators went to extreme lengths to create the impression they were maintaining primary residences outside the Ottawa region. Investigations revealed Duffy claimed a rarely used cottage in Prince Edward Island as his primary residence. Wallin claimed travel expenses to visit Saskatchewan, the province she represented, even though her primary residence was a condo in Toronto. Harb made the same claim about a house he had essentially sold, but retained a tiny interest in, to meet expense requirements.

In essence, however, these transgressions are small potatoes. Yes, the amounts of money were measured in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, it was the effort to make these transgressions go away that has really tripped up Harper.

The manipulation begins with Harper's then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, providing a personal $90,000 cheque to Duffy to repay improperly claimed living expenses. The money appears to have been, in general, an organized bid to quash further examination of Senate expenses and, in particular, a way of buying Duffy out of trouble.

The Wright loan to Duffy is problematic on several levels. First, it is disturbing to find out the prime minister's senior-most political adviser had been involved in an unseemly transaction to bail a senator out of trouble. Second, is the attempt by Wright and others in the PMO to claim Harper did not know what was going on in his own office.

The sheer unbelievability of that claim has sullied Harper's reputation in an immeasurable fashion. If Harper did know, and then lied about it, he has signed his own political death warrant. However, the suggestion he did not know is equally problematic.

It suggests Harper is surrounded by political staff who suffer from a profound ethical and moral deficit. That ultimately raises questions about Harper's own ethical-moral compass.

This is why, on so many different levels, coverups are worse than the original transgressions.

Harper has tried to deflect attention away from the expense scandal by contributing to a misguided debate about the future of the Senate itself. There is no doubt the pursuit of an unelected, upper legislative chamber needs to be undertaken. In its present form, it is hardly worthy of the time, effort and expense we now devote to it.

However, in a country where there is a great disparity in population between the largest and smallest provinces, surely there is a need for some balance in our federation. Without a Senate, which can give smaller provinces the ability to withstand the bully tactics of larger ones, we cease to be a federation.

By the terms of federal legislation, the next election must be held by the fall of 2015. It could be held earlier, if Harper believes there is a tactical advantage. That is nearly two years for the Tories to put the Senate expense scandal on ice.

Or, that's just enough time to reveal the full extent of the coverup.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

CP

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Que, Saturday, July 6, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 A4

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