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Court documents filed by the RCMP show that the Conservative Party of Canada was initially prepared to use taxpayer-subsidized party funds to repay the debt that Senator Mike Duffy owed. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Court documents filed by the RCMP show that the Conservative Party of Canada was initially prepared to use taxpayer-subsidized party funds to repay the debt that Senator Mike Duffy owed. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Tabatha Southey

Duffy the empire slayer: How the PMO created a big, big problem Add to ...

It has been observed by some that Senator Pamela Wallin and Senator Mike Duffy, both of whom have come under investigation for their questionable-to-outlandish Senate expense claims, are former journalists.

Let me assure the Canadian public that the next generation of journalists appointed to the Senate will never be the source of such controversies: They will have no idea what an expense account is and will work the first two years for free.

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Put enough of the next generation of journalists in the Senate and you can stop offering that pesky secondary-residence allowance that seems to cause confusion. You’ll be able to give the senator’s Ottawa “roommate” a big box of ramen noodles every year instead – something to make up for the fact that the senator crashes on his sofa all the time.

The idea of unpaid intern senators who would sit on minor committees for a few years but mostly just pick up dry cleaning for the more senior senators and do a lot of photocopying appeals to me. Their dedication to the calling should be tested for a while, perhaps making the abuse we’ve been witnessing less likely to be repeated.

Apart from everything else, this would spare the Prime Minister’s staff the task of trying to cover up this abuse, because they are terrible at it. It’s getting awkward to watch. It’s like the whole exquisitely polite country is trapped at karaoke night with that guy who thinks his version of Total Eclipse of the Heart is rocking your world.

This week, court documents filed by the RCMP pertaining to their investigation of Mr. Duffy were disclosed. They show that the Conservative Party of Canada was initially prepared to use taxpayer-subsidized party funds to repay the debt that Mr. Duffy owed because of improperly claimed Senate expenses. It balked, however, when it learned that the amount was $90,000, not $32,000.

The Conservative government of Canada: tough on crime over $32,000; anything above $32,000, you’re on your own – or not, since the documents confirm that Stephen Harper’s then-chief of staff, Nigel Wright, did, as reported, step in and give Mr. Duffy a personal cheque for $90,000.

Some may recall that the various Conservative talking points around the Duffy dollars were, in the words of Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, that Mr. Duffy showed “leadership” in paying back the money. Then, when the actual source of the money was revealed, we were told that Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy were friends and the gift was an entirely private matter. Mr. Wright’s generosity stemmed from the fact that Mr. Duffy couldn’t raise $90,000 on his own, we were told. He required assistance. There was some mention of his heart problem, his wife … violins played.

The RCMP report explicitly states that Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy were not friends. That, and the willingness of the Conservatives to pay the much smaller sum, beggars the credibility of the assertion that this was a private matter, or that Mr. Duffy would have been willing to pay back the money himself if only he had had the means.

The documents also allege that Mr. Wright has said that three other staff members within the PMO were aware of the $90,000 cheque, while Mr. Harper was kept in the dark. So what did they talk about around the office? How did this work? Did the Prime Minister think that they were planning a surprise party for him, because everyone stopped talking when he came through?

If Mr. Harper didn’t know about Mr. Wright paying the $90,000, did he know about the plan to use party funds to pay the $32,000? I can’t think of an answer here that makes Mr. Harper look good.

The argument can be made that it’s a chief of staff’s job to make problems go away, yet here the undertaking seems to have been to help the problem stay – in the Senate seat from which Mr. Duffy has raised vast sums for the Conservative Party, while travelling throughout Canada and sometimes claiming the allowance granted senators while they’re performing Senate business in Ottawa.

At what point should Mr. Harper have known? At what point does he become Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince in the first act, living in a palace, guarded by a great wall, a place where sorrow is not allowed to enter?

“I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything about me was so beautiful,” the Prince said. The story is very sad.

Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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