The money involved is relatively trivial, most of the players are political lightweights, the quality of debate is beyond banal and the real effects on Canadians’ daily lives are nil. For truly serious governance malfunction, look at the mess in the United States. For expensively scandalous misgovernment, look to Ontario. Why bother with Ottawa’s ludicrous Senate scandal?
The problem is that, as in the Watergate affair that destroyed the Nixon administration, lies, stonewalling, and law-breaking in high places about initially insignificant matters can escalate to the point where they bring down vast political temples. The Senate expense foolishness now seems to involve the undermining of three of the pillars of our politics.
First: Who will ever take the Senate of Canada seriously again? This house has collapsed. Not least because it is so completely rotted with lightweights, trivia, banality and incompetence, it is hard to imagine how there can be new Senate appointments, meaningful reform or a restoration of sobriety, let alone dignity. In all our history, there has never been so much contempt for the Senate, leavened only with ridicule. Why can’t we force it into bankruptcy, run it in receivership, suspend the lot of them, have an abolition referendum?
Second: Concerns about meddling by the Prime Minister’s Office, which have floated around Ottawa for many years, have now reached a stunning level of seriousness. What at first seemed to be not hugely abnormal PMO handling of a political problem has morphed into a stinking swamp. Former senior PMO staffers are now in jeopardy of being charged with interference, intimidation, unprofessional conduct and varieties of criminality. Will our executive branch ever again be able to tamper with our legislators in what had seemed to be acceptable – certainly time-honoured – practice in a parliamentary system? As with senators and their expense accounts, what are the implications when what had seemed to be commonplace suddenly might be criminal? The backrooms of the PMO will not be the same again.
Third: The Conservative Party of Canada is facing the most serious crisis in its short history. No one who watched last week’s Question Period in the House of Commons, where on three out of four days Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared as furtive as Richard Nixon during Watergate, as hair-splitting as Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, and less credible than Brian Mulroney at his smarmiest, can avoid wondering what has happened to his judgment. The CEO of Canada, known for his high ability, has, at best, done a terrible job of managing his office, an astonishingly poor job of crisis management.
It’s very good to negotiate international trade deals. But it was said of the great Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Borden that his high-minded neglect of domestic issues to concentrate on the world stage, led to the downfall of his party in the hands of inept lieutenants. Conservative MPs, whose political careers are being jeopardized by the antics of misbehaving senators and dodgy PMO staff, might well wonder whether history is repeating itself under Mr. Harper, his globe-trotting, and his inability to recapture the daily political agenda.
Isn’t it all going to settle down soon – say, with the Senate’s punishment of its guilty members? Not at all. The accused, who deeply believe they followed accepted Senate practice, will be heard no matter what happens in the Red Chamber. Short of a real lynching, they cannot be silenced. Matters will move to courts, one way or another, including the court of public opinion. Senator Mike Duffy’s lawyer said we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg of e-mails and other documents. Does anyone think that revelations of every detail of Nigel Wright’s lawyers’ negotiations with Mike Duffy’s lawyers, of the type we heard from Mr. Duffy on Monday, will make things better? More likely, they’ll be the underwater slime coating the ice. Canadians will be further appalled, further angered.
Some hard-core Conservatives and political strategists believe the great Liberal mistake a few years ago was not to stonewall the sponsorship scandal until it went away. Close the file. Change the channel. Distract the audience.
The trouble is that at election time in 2015, the Senate, the PMO, Mr. Harper’s evasiveness and the whole sorry cast of characters in this bizarre and outrageous fiasco will still be around. They can’t be prorogued away. The easiest election job of all will be to create devastating and funny attack ads on the government. Conservatives and their friends should be very worried.
It’s a government’s Halloween nightmare come true.
Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.