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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Conservatives have been sailing close to the wind Add to ...

From what’s now in the public domain – this information can and likely will change – serious questions have been raised about whether at least a couple of Conservative senators were claiming public expenses while doing partisan party work.

Senators Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy were among the star attractions at Conservative riding association meetings. Their previous television celebrity status guaranteed good turnouts and earned lots of money for party coffers. The former journalists became partisan tub-thumpers and, as such, were exceedingly useful to the party.

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It’s just that the costs of doing political road show work shouldn’t be paid for by the general public. If they were, it would be another example of the Conservative Party sailing close to the wind when it comes to the ethics and legality of doing politics.

As long ago as the 2006 election, the Conservative machine was engaged in something that became known as the “in and out” affair. The party transferred money to 67 riding association that then sent the money back to headquarters in order to claim a 60-per-cent rebate from the elections agency. This money ostensibly was for local electoral purposes, whereas in fact it helped buy national television advertising time.

Elections Canada blew the whistle on the “in and out” scam, which was defended vigorously by Conservative headquarters. Eventually, the party settled out of court, pleading guilty and returning $230,198. Among those involved were the party’s chief money man, Senator (of course) Irving Gerstein, and its chief campaign organizer, Senator (of course) Doug Finley, recently deceased.

Then there was the “robocalls” affair, recently the subject of a ruling from a judge of the Federal Court. He found that Conservative candidates in six ridings were not involved in telephone calls that told supporters of other parties that polling station locations had changed. But he noted that the calls were based on Conservative Party lists.

Conservative spokespeople immediately cried victory because their MPs were exonerated. But the judge noted that these MPs had tried systematically to “block these proceedings by any means.” Moreover, left open was the obvious question: Who would have had access to the Conservative Party’s lists if not a person or persons close to the party?

These kinds of questionable practices now seem to have reappeared in the Senate expense affair, which has already brought down Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and caused Ms. Wallin and Mr. Duffy to resign from the Conservative caucus. The RCMP and ethics commissioner are now involved in investigating the affair, so chances are that Canadians haven’t heard the end of it.

One of the rich ironies of the affair, of course, is that no one in recent memory hungered more for a Senate appointment than Mike Duffy, and no senator in recent times has done more to bring the institution into disrepute.

If his name had been Mike Smith and the principal reason for his appointment had been that he lost an election as a Conservative candidate, the affair would have been much less damaging. But Mr. Duffy traded on his celebrity status as journalist, speaker and senator, and the Conservatives were happy to trade on that status, too. They were willing to alter an initial Senate report that had the effect of offering him some protection, and Mr. Wright was willing to cut him a $90,000 cheque.

The reaction to the Senate affair is typical of the way Mr. Harper’s government does politics – indeed, government. Hunker down, deny, blame the media, give out as little information as possible, try to ride out the storm. But under no circumstances provide a full and fair accounting of what happened.

Canadians can see this attitude on display every day in the way the government spends money for partisan purposes through television advertisements at the public’s expense, the vicious attack ads levelled at leaders of other political parties, the use of MPs’ household mails for similar attacks, the constant spin-doctoring, the roundhouse swings at opponents in civic society, the attacks on “lickspittle” media.

Canada has moved over time from a friendly dictatorship (to borrow a phrase) to elements of a thugocracy.

 

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