When West Winnipeg MLA Thomas Johnson accused the Premier Rodmond Roblin government of corruption in a 1913 Gimli byelection, he said promising government money for projects in a riding wasn’t a new tactic, and that taxpayers didn’t regard the practice as particularly wrong as long as it was kept within “reasonable limits.” It was only when the money promised and spent vastly exceeded “reasonable limits” that public sentiment was aroused, he added.
Johnson, a lawyer, was primarily responsible for bringing down the Roblin government when his probing guestions about spending irregularities over the construction of the new Manitoba Legislative Building resulted in an investigation by the Mathers Royal Commission, which showed that the accusations made by Johnson were true.
What Johnson said so many years ago about “reasonable limits” also has a bearing on today’s politics.
It’s doubtful that Canadians would have been particularly concerned about Senators and their expense accounts, if it could be shown that such expenses are associated with a “reasonable” need to perform their duties on behalf of taxpayers. It was when the media began reporting that “reasonable” had turned into “unreasonable” that there were the first inklings that something quite smelly was going on in Ottawa.
Still, few Canadians — with the exception of Liberals and NDP MPs — seemed to be overly alarmed that Senator Mike Duffy had charged taxpayers $90,000 in housing and living expenses that he was not entitled to. In fact, when Duffy announced he had paid back the $90,000 and subsequently resigned from the Tory caucus (fellow Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin has also resigned from the caucus over the issue of allegations of improper living and travelling expenses), Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government seemed to have averted a potentially damaging political crisis. Even the committee investigating senator’s housing expenses had originally dismissed the matter as over when the alleged repayment from out of Duffy’s own pocket was made.
Then came the revelation that Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s chief of staff in the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), had given the money to Duffy. It was a gift, Wright said.
This action raised a red flag. Why had one high-ranking political appointee handed over a cheque to another political appointee for what was essentially improper expenses? By all accounts, Wright is an honourable man who was trying to be a good guy by helping out a friend with the gift of $90,000.
But what was Wright thinking? Did he really believe that bailing out Duffy, who was caught with his hand in the taxpayer’s cookie jar, would make matters right.
Wright should have thought about the consequences of his action. The most obvious consequences are that it forced his resignation and created a full-blown scandal. The scandal may have even been nipped in the bud if Wright had announced from the outset that he intended to help out Duffy by making the repayment to Canadian taxpayers. By knowing the nature of the repayment, Canada’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, could have determined whether or not it followed parliamentary rules.
In the wake of the revelation and lack of disclosure from the beginning, last Tuesday, Dawson announced she will be investigating Wright’s role in the expenses controversy.
At first, there was only silence from Wright, as well as from other Conservatives who may have been in the know. But failing to mention the nature of the repayment from the beginning has given rise to all kinds of speculation about who knew what and when did they know it.
“Reasonable” had turned into “unreasonable” with a flourish of a pen. Abuse of power and lack of accountability is now the cry from the opposition and the media. There’s even speculation that Wright and members of the PMO told the Conservative-dominated Senate committee investigating Duffy’s expenses to go easy on the disgraced Senator after the payment was made. Since the PMO is a creature of the prime minister, it lifts the speculation to another political level, whether justified or not.
After the expansions of the scandal, the Senate committee has been embarrassed into reopening its probe into Duffy’s expenses.
The speculation was not diminished to any extent this week when the prime minister rose in caucus and said he was “very upset about some conduct we have witnessed, the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office.”
His speech was damage control that offered little by way of addressing the issue of abuse of expenses by Senators. Another matter that needed to be addressed is why a high-ranking official in the PMO paid back the money, and why was Duffy bailed out in the first place.
Much of what Harper said was to deflect blame for the lack of Senate reform on the Liberals and NDP.
“As Canadians know,” he said, “I was not elected to defend the Senate.”
Harper also knows that changing the Senate is complicated by the Canadian Constitution, which states that Senate reform requires the approval of the provinces.
He has sent the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada for a ruling on whether the proposed reforms can be accomplished by Parliament acting on its own, as well as the possibility of outright abolishing the Senate. But while awaiting the Supreme Court ruling, no one should expect the unexpected, as Senate reform is the great bugbear of Canadian politics.
Particularly upset by what has happened are many Conservative parliamentarians — in the Senate and House of Commons — who had nothing to do with the ill-considered actions taken by others. Rightly so, they’re enraged by the scandal and its potential to tarnish their image, as are Conservative supporters across the country. They deserved to be told who was responsible for what.
In his speech to the Conservative caucus last Tuesday, Harper warned that, “Anyone, anyone who wants to use public office for their own benefit should make other plans or, better yet, leave this room.”
Duffy, who is in the prime minister’s bad books and the most visible reminder of the scandal, left the room, but has not resigned his Senate seat.
As Johnson said so long ago, most voters will accept “reasonable limits,” but when practices exceed “reasonable limits,” the people responsible have to be held accountable.
Until meaningful reforms are undertaken, Senators need to return to their original purpose of representing the nation’s regions and being the “chamber of sober second thought,” in order to restore Canadian confidence in an important parliamentary institution.