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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

MARGARET WENTE

If only Senator Duffy had sipped his Scotch quietly Add to ...

“This is a place where you’re supposed to sip Scotch quietly and make sure that you don’t cause too much ruckus.”
Mike Duffy on the Senate, speaking to Peter Gzowski in 1985

Mike Duffy made no secret that he longed to be a senator. I could never figure out why. Sitting in the Senate always struck me as joining the living dead: You have to spend a lot of time with largely irrelevant has-beens, listening to stupefying speeches and doing useless committee work.

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On the other hand, it’s not a bad living. You get a title. And you get to hang around the clubhouse, pretending you’re a somebody, and to swan around the country being treated as if you matter. Being treated as a somebody may not seem so bad when your career is winding down and the alternative is a not-so-remunerative retirement back in poky PEI. Especially when you get paid for your expenses.

If only he had sipped his Scotch quietly, Mr. Duffy might not be in disgrace today. But he wasn’t interested in that. He was hired to make a noise. Stephen Harper made him a senator in order to to milk his celebrity for all it was worth. Which turned out to be quite a lot. Mr. Duffy (or “Old Duff,” as he liked to call himself) was great at getting out the crowds and extracting money from their wallets. Just weeks after he signed off the air at CTV in 2009, as Canadian Press’s Bruce Cheadle has related, the newly minted senator was shilling for the party at fundraisers from coast to coast. People loved his semi-profane, folksy style. Local media did, too. In small towns across Canada, his appearances – and the witty broadsides he fired at the opposition – were big news.

Well before he left journalism, Mr. Duffy’s personality and appearance had become something of a joke. The Puffster, as people called him not so far behind his back, had an ego commensurate with his girth. (Disclosure: I was on his show from time to time, and we got along quite well.) Of course, it’s easy to get a big head if you have your own TV show, but Mr. Duffy’s head was larger than most. He came to believe that he was more important than most of the people he interviewed. He treated public figures he didn’t like as idiots, rogues and scoundrels. When he caught them offside – fudging, obfuscating, stonewalling, perhaps even forgetting where they lived – he’d tear them limb from limb.

At the same time, Mr. Duffy was the embodiment of the Ottawa insider. And as soon as he joined the other side, it was the media who were idiots, rogues and scoundrels. When a CP reporter asked him how many party fundraisers he’d attended in the past year, he responded in an e-mail: “You are beneath contempt.”

Personally, I think it’s unseemly for former journalists (especially political ones) to sit in the Senate. How can you spend a lifetime criticizing patronage appointments, then take one yourself? Inevitably, it looks like a payoff from the people you were once paid to cover. If journalists want to contribute to political life, they should do it the honest way, by running for office.

Mr. Duffy’s troubles might have gone away after he paid back the $90,000 in housing expenses that he wasn’t entitled to (the rules were confusing, according to him). But now that the $90,000 turns out to have been a friendly gift from Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, the Conservatives have a real crisis on their hands.

At the very least, the message to the public is: The insiders take care of their own.

What was Mr. Wright thinking? I can’t imagine. The chief of staff is supposed to insulate the Prime Minister from petty party scandals, not drag him into the deep end. And now, the story is not whether Mike Duffy can survive, but whether Mr. Wright can.

Mr. Duffy’s survival is of no importance. But Nigel Wright is big game indeed. And when you are the PM’s chief of staff, you ought to know that you can’t give money to a Senator who is having audit difficulties, even if you feel awfully sorry for him.

It’s too bad in a way that the focus has switched to Mr. Wright, because there’s a lot more to say about the Senate. The Canadian Senate is like tits on a bull – neither useful nor necessary. But it is a handy way for both major political parties to milk the system. A Senate seat is a sinecure for party hacks and others owed for services rendered. There they can spend their declining years in comfort, and continue to serve their parties’ interests, on the taxpayers’ dime. The Senate is unelected and unaccountable, and you can be sure Mr. Duffy is not the only member who feels entitled to his entitlements.

I actually have a few friends in the Senate. They are nice people and they work hard. So I hope they will forgive me for agreeing with Maclean’s, which argues that the Senate, while once important, serves no real purpose today other than to bring itself into disrepute. If we can’t abolish it (and we can’t), our only option is to render it as irrelevant as possible.

 

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