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Penny Collenette (University of Ottawa)

Penny Collenette

(University of Ottawa)

Penny Collenette

Mike Duffy scandal finds the Tories in a moral maze without a compass Add to ...

Like children lost in the maze of a glorious English garden, the public office holders of both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Senate can’t seem to find their way out of ethical messes.

Values and ethics are difficult, philosophical subjects at the best of times and are often the subject of hot debate. A typical business example is that of “favours.” Do you try to influence a government official in another country (or, sadly, even in Canada) with a bribe because it’s expected and your competitors are doing it? If you don’t do it, you won’t get the business. Business students and professors spend hours of classroom time trying to resolve this type of situation. What is clear to one student may not be as clear to another – unless there is a law.

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However, we cannot make laws (nor should we) for every type of situation. Instead, we operate on moral principles, conventions and trust. Accountability, clarity, honesty and lack of secrecy are some of the criteria of those principles.

If Canadians didn’t realize it before, they now understand that the Senate is not accountable to anyone. An unaccountable body in a democracy is a rare institution in this day and age. It can only function with the highest ethical standards. Anything less is not acceptable.

A basic Ethics 101 course would suggest that if you don’t understand the rules, you ask for clarification. Yet, it would seem that a number of Senators simply didn’t want to raise their hands in their quest for an answer about living expenses. Possibly they knew the answer and didn’t like it, so decided to ignore it. Perhaps they thought they were clever enough to find a loophole and decided to just sail through it.

Others argue that the rules weren’t clear. (It appears that the Senate agrees, because in a strategically bizarre but politically necessary announcement, the Senate clarified the rules, after announcing that expenses must be repaid).

All of this is messy enough. It does not speak to a healthy democracy because it breeds both cynicism (who can you trust?) and apathy (why would I care?). An archaic institution, founded in 1867, has been caught with its ethical pants down in 2013, embarrassing all of Canada and infuriating Canadians with an apparent misuse of taxpayer’s money.

And now the Prime Minister’s Office is equally lost in the ethical maze. The news that the PM’s Chief of Staff, the much-respected Nigel Wright, has personally paid the $90,000 in questionable living expenses of Senator Mike Duffy, has stunned political watchers.

While the investigation was continuing, it was reported that Senator David Tkachuk, chairman of Internal Economy, Budget and Administration, told Mr. Duffy that he would have to repay his living expenses. Dates of the cheques which predate the public report would seem to suggest that someone realized that there was an “optics” challenge and someone decided to clean it up. Ironically, by cleaning it up, another mess has been made. Legal, political, moral and ethical questions are whirling on Twitter, on talk shows and in ordinary conversations.

Is this payment illegal? If it is not, is it unethical? Did the Prime Minister know? How much did the Prime Minister know? Was this Mr. Wright’s idea? Was this Mr. Duffy’s idea? If not, whose idea? Why was it kept secret, allowing Mr. Duffy to lead the public to believe that he had repaid the monies himself?

It’s certainly legal for someone to give a loan or a gift to someone else. If the gift is a structured loan (which seems to be the case since lawyers were involved), then typically there will be repayment details (and normally interest will be charged).

But Senators, even though they are not elected, are public office-holders and so, arguably, are unelected PMO staff. By virtue of those positions, public office holders are traditionally held to a very high ethical and transparency bar. They are not just anyone. For example, in their code of ethics (which should probably be updated), Senators are prohibited from receiving gifts “that could reasonably be seen to relate to their position.” Mr. Duffy has now taken a huge gift (even if it’s a loan) from the PM’s chief of staff, putting them both in internal difficulties politically and in external ethical gray zones.

Other than a spouse, no one is closer to a Prime Minister than a chief of staff. Political junkies will remember the strong relationship between Leo McGarry and the U.S. President in the TV series The West Wing.

It’s true that the chief of staff does not tell the Prime Minister everything. Some issues are best not to discuss. Some issues need quiet “fixing.” Perhaps Nigel Wright decided to fix this problem himself. Perhaps Mike Duffy put huge pressure on him to do just that.

But we don’t know because it’s not transparent. Worse, the Canadian public was led to believe that Mr. Duffy made his own payment, which is, at the very least, disingenuous. We don’t know if the Prime Minister knew what he knew and when he became aware of the payment.

We don’t know any of this because in a maze, there is only one way out. And no one, it seems, has a moral compass to find the exit.

Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated the name of the chief of staff character on the West Wing. This version has been corrected.

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