The list of things Canadians would have to believe in order to stomach the story around Senator Mike Duffy – who, late on Thursday, resigned from the Conservative caucus to sit as an Independent – stops just short of our accepting the existence of Bigfoot.
Last week, we were told by Government House Leader Peter Van Loan that Mr. Duffy showed “leadership” in paying back the $90,172.24 in expenses he wasn’t entitled to claim as a senator but had claimed anyway. This week, CTV learned that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had reached into his own admittedly deep pockets to give Mr. Duffy the money to make that payment.
I’ll take every one of you out to dinner on my own “leadership” if those are the terms.
Mr. Duffy failed to co-operate with an independent audit of senatorial claims. He has asked us to believe that he didn’t understand what a primary residence is, and that a staffer’s “clerical error” caused him to claim a per diem for time spent in untropical Ottawa while he was on holiday in Florida.
Now, we’re asked to believe that, unbeknownst to the Prime Minister, Mr. Wright, merely moved by the senator’s plight – because, we must trust, the former high-profile broadcaster whose senatorial salary is $132,000, who owns two homes, one mortgage-free, couldn’t raise $90,000 – handed that sum over in an act of pure un-tax-deductible philanthropy.
“The PM was not aware of the specifics,” Andrew MacDougall, Mr. Harper’s director of communications, has said of this transaction when asked – a statement that at least doesn’t further strain the nation’s already overtaxed credulity: It could mean only that Mr. Harper didn’t know whether the cheque used was one of those scenic ones with pastel pine trees on it or the plain kind.
It’s a masterfully non-committal sentence for which, at this point, we must be grateful. There was no mention of a communiqué from the Ambassador of the Fairy People.
If Canadians are to maintain faith in our political system, we’ll have to agree to believe that a large cash gift was made from a man at the very top of the Prime Minister’s Office to a man who will vote on legislation but that the money was not in any way for services to be rendered or already rendered.
We must believe this even though, if the glad-handing and fundraising Mr. Duffy has done on their behalf is any indication, the Senate is well on its way to becoming the Ladies Auxiliary of the Conservative Party. Indeed, Mr. Duffy appears to have submitted Senate expense claims while campaigning for the party.
We must take it on faith that Mr. Wright will not be compensated for his efforts to rehabilitate Mr. Duffy’s reputation with party or government funds while he is employed in the public sector. His salary, like that of all PMO staffers, is undisclosed. We also must trust he’ll not receive any favour should he return to the private sector, where, as the former managing director of a private-equity firm, he earned a reputation as a financial whiz.
Is all of this possible? Of course, it’s possible. Almost anything’s possible. Some people like to surprise people they’re not all that close to with gifts. Maybe Nigel Wright is the Oprah Winfrey of Ottawa. Some people can and will pay $90,000 just to make a problem go away, and there’s no question that Mr. Duffy’s expense claims, and increasingly Mr. Duffy himself, are a problem for the Conservatives.
People seem to have nice things to say about Nigel Wright, which makes me wonder why he would put our famously polite nation in this awkward position. That Mr. Duffy now sits as an Independent, where he is still on our dime and still voting on bills on our behalf, makes none of these questions go away.
The best possible spin on this is that the government was concerned that we would miss the snow now that it’s gone, and was giving Canadians something else to shovel all summer long. Or was this part of a new Conservative “reduction in the appearance of crime” initiative? A program that will involve fewer prison guards and police officers, and more fixers?
Maybe Canadians can suspend their disbelief high enough to believe this – high enough that Bigfoot could swing from our disbelief on a jungle vine. It’s not that far from what’s being asked of us now. Or is the true naiveté of Canadians now embodied in our expectation that those who campaign to be elected or appointed to the institutions that we pay for, that are our democracy, pass through them with more grace than a bull in a china shop?
Though a bull isn’t the right image here, perhaps. In my mind, Mr. Duffy is a polar bear on a dwindling senatorial iceberg – if polar bears themselves caused global warming.