The first adult book on politics I ever read was John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1957), telling the stories of eight U.S. senators who had shown their mettle amidst difficult circumstances. It’s still an inspiring book, even if we now know that the Pulitzer Prize should have gone to Mr. Kennedy’s ghostwriter Ted Sorenson.
We’re now seeing our own examples of courage among Canadian senators. First off the mark was Senator Hugh Segal, who announced his reservations about the motion to suspend Senators Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau. I believe Mr. Segal is still the only member of the Conservative caucus to express such doubts, though I’m sure others must share them, for this resolution is troubling.
First, it violates due process and natural justice, because it would impose severe penalties – loss of income and devastating harm to reputation – before conclusion of the RCMP and Deloitte investigations that the Senate itself has asked for. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards,” said the Red Queen in the trial of the allegedly tart-stealing Knave of Hearts. It would indeed take the genius of Lewis Carroll to do justice to what’s now happening in the Senate.
But it’s not just unfair, it’s dangerous to start suspending Members of Parliament, whether they’re elected or appointed. The usual penalty for being politically inconvenient is removal from caucus, which makes sense because no one has a right to belong to a party grouping. But long-term suspension – expulsion, in effect – from the legislative body is something we expect to see in an authoritarian system, not a democracy. Pay attention, elected MPs. If it can happen to senators, it can happen to you. De te fabula narratur.
Hugh Segal is one of nature’s gentlemen, frank and outspoken, yet always kind and courteous. Appointed by the Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, he often takes independent positions, yet has no intention of leaving the Conservative caucus where he sits. As he said recently, he is a lifelong Conservative loyalist who sees it as his duty to point out the party’s mistakes so they can be corrected.
Senator Mike Duffy exhibited a different and perhaps even more challenging kind of courage when he spoke in the Senate on Tuesday. He had to expose mistakes that he himself had made in the not so distant past. It’s clear, and he admitted, that he had some doubts about accepting the housing allowance, for he sought guidance from Senate and PMO authorities. But he says they told him there was no problem, that it was perfectly permissible under Senate rules. Maybe he should have paid greater attention to his own doubts; but if he made a mistake, it was one of judgment, not of deliberately breaking rules. Those who have never made a mistake of judgment can cast the first stone.
Then he admitted that, under pressure, he had collaborated with others in an attempt to make the issue of the housing allowance go away. He paid back the money, drawing on the famous cheque from Nigel Wright, thus implicitly admitting that he shouldn’t have taken the housing allowance in the first place, even though he had been told it was allowable under Senate rules as they were then interpreted. He said he was assured that, if he co-operated, he could carry on in the Senate as usual.
This, I think, was wrong, and Mr. Duffy says he regrets it. But it wasn’t just his own mistake, it was also the doing of others. Mr. Duffy, even while in poor health from heart disease, was the one to step forward and finally lift the veil on the secret – a conspicuous act of courage, for which the public should be grateful.
Tom Flanagan is a Distinguished Fellow in the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.