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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

ETHICS

Margaret Wente: Journalists have no business in the Senate Add to ...

Stephen Harper has always been allergic to journalists. He doesn’t like them and he doesn’t trust them. He has always suspected that they have only one agenda, which is to destroy him.

But the two journalists who’ve done him the most damage were supposed to be the ones on his side. Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, appointed to the Senate for their celebrity status and devotion to the party, have wounded him far more gravely than squadrons of investigative reporters ever have. They have helped to demolish the Conservatives’ claim to integrity in government and respect for taxpayers. And the Harper government’s inexplicable response to the scandal has disgusted much of his own base, who say they no longer recognize the party they thought they belonged to.

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“I fear we’re morphing into what we once mocked, ” said Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, who quit the caucus this week.

It’s hard to embarrass the journalism profession, but Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin have done it. Journalists are, after all, supposed to be in the business of holding governments to account and exposing public abuse. It is awkward, to say the least, when two of the most prominent former journalists in Canada become part of the problem.

Superannuated journalists have no business sitting in the Senate, which is often seen as essentially a reward for party loyalty. It makes a mockery of any claim they may have had to the appearance of impartiality. You can’t appear to hold powerful people to account if you at the same time allow yourself to be eligible for a reward of a nice sinecure, a housing allowance and a ready-made retirement plan from those same people. Journalists with any self-respect would do their jobs in such a way that they will never, ever get a Senate offer. If they want to go into politics, let them run for office like anybody else.

Mr. Duffy has attracted most of the heat because of Nigel Wright’s baffling decision to cut a cheque to help him pay back his illegitimate expenses. But Ms. Wallin is in deep trouble, too. Forensic auditors are now scouring her expense claims to determine whether she claimed expenses for personal or other business unrelated to the Senate. She has already paid back $38,000 in expense money she wasn’t entitled to, and, according to CTV sources, there’s more to come.

The picture that has emerged is of a highly energetic networker who parlayed her political connections into a lucrative career in the private sector. According to a report in the Toronto Star, Ms. Wallin has earned approximately $1-million in corporate board fees and stock options since becoming a senator in 2009. Until last month, she sat on the board of Gluskin Sheff & Associates, a private money management firm for wealthy individuals. That was worth $330,000 in cash, deferred shares and options. She collected almost $648,000 in cash and options awards from Oilsands Quest (now defunct). She has also collected more in undisclosed, but likely healthy, fees for sitting on the boards of directors of Porter Airlines and of CTVglobemedia, purchased by Bell in 2011. Presumably she didn’t need a loan to pay back those improper Senate expenses. (Disclosure: I know Mr. Duffy, Ms. Wallin, Gerald Sheff and Ira Gluskin. We media-political-business elites live in a small world.)

Senators of all stripes have been mixing business and politics for years. There’s nothing illegal about it. Senators can carry on business so long as they report it to the Senate ethics officer. But citizens of all stripes might be forgiven for asking why the Senate should serve as a handy base for lucky appointees to enrich themselves – and whether the nation’s business and the senators’ business are really so interchangeable. And despite other senators’ cries of shock and horror, it’s hard to escape the impression that the last people on Earth who want the Senate reformed are the senators themselves.

We can already infer that a good chunk of the $321,000 that Ms. Wallin claimed in expenses over a period of 18 months was illegitimate. How much? Eventually we’ll find out. Ms. Wallin also has another problem – the residency trap. Public filings by Gluskin Sheff list her residence as Toronto. Ms. Wallin, of course, insists that she lives in Saskatchewan. It’s hard see how both things can be true.

Yet I’m not entirely without sympathy for these people. Ms. Wallin and Mr. Duffy have been around Ottawa for decades. They knew how the Senate game was played. You take a little more than you’re entitled to, and hope nobody notices. Senators have never been subjected to the kind of basic oversight that’s routine in the private sector, even for CEOs. Some senators are frugal with public money. Others aren’t. No one ever cared about these matters until now. The rules changed retroactively, and nobody told them.

And now Ms. Wallin, the ultimate insider, is an outcast in Ottawa and beyond. She will likely no longer by an attractive candidate for lucrative board assignments. And she will be forever haunted by that damning image of her splayed hand thrust in front of an invasive camera – a gesture journalists love, because it makes their prey look guilty as hell.

Naturally, the media – the people Mr. Harper detests so much – are riding this for all it’s worth. The CBC is talking darkly of a PMO slush fund that may, theoretically, have been used to compensate Mr. Wright for making Mr. Duffy’s problems go away – or at least that is the insinuation. (Mr. Wright, a wealthy man, certainly doesn’t need the money, and the PMO denies that a secret fund even exists.) Mr. Harper, who has a very large left brain but a wholly inadequate right brain, looks as if he has no idea how to make his own problem go away.

As for the public, it’s no wonder so many of them doubt that journalists can be trusted to act impartially in the public interest. With examples such as these, who can blame them?

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