CORNWALL, PEI — The sign seemed to say it all: "Free bungee jumping for our senators — no strings attached."
It appeared on the welcome sign for a used car dealership in western PEI. Comments like that have been looming large in coffee shops, social media and letters to the editor since revelations of Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses began to surface several weeks ago.
A cartoon in the local newspaper showed an Islander trying to fill in a form and pondering a question most of us would have little trouble answering — where do I live?" That question is at the heart of Duffy’s current troubles.
He signed a declaration indicating his primary residence is a cottage in Cavendish on the Island’s north shore despite the fact he also owns a house in Kanata, Ontario, which he purchased while working as a broadcaster on Parliament Hill. For Anne lovers, Cavendish is where Green Gables House (the home of PEI’s most famous fictional resident Anne of Green Gables) is located.
That declaration allowed him to claim $41,000 in living expenses. Since the story broke, Duffy seems to have forgotten everything he learned while a reporter.
He berated journalists and, when that didn’t work, he fled through a hotel kitchen to avoid them. Then he claimed outrage, especially with suggestions he was not a PEI resident, claiming Canadians know him as an "honest man." The only thing missing were the violins.
He explained that he also has a third residence (he rents an apartment in the Island capital of Charlottetown during the winter months) for when his Cavendish house is snowed in. As to why the provincial tax department considered him a non-resident (the province has different property tax rates for residents and non-residents), he said that was a matter for accountants.
When none of that worked, he said he was paying the money back. Still maintaining he did nothing wrong, he blamed the "mistake" on the "confusing" forms he had to sign. Duffy was clearly hopeful that would make the issue go away. He should have known from his previous life things don’t work that way.
Instead, he opened himself to a whole different avenue of criticism. People started asking how effective he could represent Island interests from Ottawa, if he couldn’t fill out a simple form. One Facebook posting I saw proclaimed "Duffy admits he is not a thief — he’s just stupid."
He has also offered explanations as to why he has an Ontario health card rather than one from PEI. He has a history of heart problems and, quite frankly, he said he thought he would get better and faster care with an Ontario Health Insurance Plan card.
That is an argument many Islanders can understand and even sympathize with. Personally, if I had the chance, I wouldn’t hesitate a minute in exchanging my PEI health card for one from Ontario and I’m pretty confident I’m far from alone.
That is nothing against the men and women who work in the PEI health care system — it’s simply a function of population. Ontario has more than 12 million people and PEI has just over 141,000. There is no way PEI can afford the same kind of care.
Duffy has also now offered a reason why the tax department considers him a non-resident, although that is being treated a little more skeptically. The finance department rules define residency as being in the province for 183 consecutive days between January and December of any year.
While he maintains he spends the 183 days on Island soil, they are not consecutive. In fact, he said there is no way he could do his job in Ottawa and meet the requirement.
Technically, he is probably right and the seven other PEI MP’s and Senators probably don’t meet the consecutive requirement either. The difference, however, is likely that they all lived in the province before they entered politics.
Senator Duffy is determined to carry on business as usual. In fact, he has made more appearances at meetings and other public gatherings over the last several weeks than has been in the case in the past. That is probably something that will continue — at least in the short term.
If the Senate committee finds Duffy does not live in the province, the possibility is there could be a constitutional challenge regarding his right to hold the seat. It has now grown from a brushfire to an inferno, since the residency of two other senators has also been questioned.
Duffy has received only lukewarm support from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. If the committee does find his appointment is unconstitutional, the prime minister may remove him quickly to make the story go away.
A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.