Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to clean up the Senate

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The sad and sickening Senate scandal is no longer about Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and the public money these fallen Conservative stars wrongly took.

It is about Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It is about how he personally responded to the misdeeds in the red-carpeted Senate chamber. It is about his assurances to Canadians afterwards. And it is about what he will do to set the Senate right.

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When Canadians have all the information in these key areas, they will know if they still want him to be the leader of this country. It's that basic. It's that serious.

There's no doubt that earlier this year, Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, secretly wrote Duffy a cheque for $90,172 to repay the senator's improperly claimed expenses.

According to the RCMP, Duffy's acceptance of this money runs contrary to the Criminal Code. And certainly there's an ethical problem. People should not give gifts to a politician because of the obvious possibility that it can be done for political ends -- and to the detriment of the political system itself.

From the moment the payment to Duffy became widely known, Harper has denied having had any involvement in the transaction. Moreover, he says he was unaware of what Wright was doing. As the news of Senate misbehaviour pours out like effluent from a broken sewer pipe, Canadians are looking to see Harper's account of events confirmed.

Let's agree the behaviour of this senatorial trio is a galling confirmation to ordinary citizens that the nation's political elites too often and too willingly take advantage of them. After audits of their expense claims, Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin collectively repaid about $277,000 to the government. That was money to which they were not entitled, despite their loud protestations of innocence and unconvincing excuses.

Duffy incorrectly declared his main residence to be his Prince Edward Island summer home, so he could claim living expenses for the Ottawa home that was, in reality, his principal abode for decades. Canadians have a right to be furious about this.

What makes the Senate scandal of national importance is the involvement of the Prime Minister's Office and the finger pointing at Harper himself. This week, a combative Duffy said Harper told him to repay his expenses. That's hardly headline news. Harper has said the same thing for months and repeated the assertion on Wednesday in the House of Commons. As we see it, Harper was right to give Duffy this order.

But opposition politicians are casting doubts on Harper's assertion he had no part in or knowledge of the payment to Duffy. If Duffy has evidence that will shed light on this matter, he should make it public immediately. As for Harper, his unchanging position on the cheque to Duffy leaves him no wiggle room. He has given us all his word and we will hold him to it.

Canadians will wait and expect the truth will all come out. The RCMP are investigating the three senators and we trust the police will get to the bottom of this. In the meantime, the prime minister should explain how he could appoint Duffy as a P.E.I. senator when it was clear Duffy did not meet the basic requirement of residing in that province. In addition, the prime minister should announce plans to clarify and tighten the residency rules for senators. Perhaps this could kick-start the Senate reform Harper has so long advocated.

The Senate's mess has landed on the prime minister's desk. It is imperative he clean it up.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2013 0

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