“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” – Henry II of England, about Thomas Becket
When powerful leaders get angry, they brook no dissent and froth at being embarrassed, which is what three Conservative senators have discovered.
Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau got themselves in trouble and, by extension, the party they supported and the leader who appointed them, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
That they embarrassed themselves was bad enough; that they embarrassed the party and its leader was an unforgivable sin, for which the penalty was the humiliation of suspension from the Senate on Tuesday night.
How did it come to this, that these three got themselves, and the government, into such a tangled mess? There was another way to have handled the embarrassment they caused: to have simply allowed an RCMP investigation to continue wherever it led. Of course, there would have been endless questions and not very convincing public answers. But the government could have said, “Look, the police are investigating, we’re co-operating and we expect that justice will eventually be done.”
When the stories first broke about the trio’s housing allowances and travel claims, damage control became the Prime Minister’s order. His staff, including former chief of staff Nigel Wright and others, plus then-government leader in the Senate, the ever-faithful Conservative partisan Marjory LeBreton, swung into action to defuse the matter. Instead, they contributed to making matters worse, when all three senators refused to lie down and be silent.
There are no heroes in this tale, no Thomas Becket martyred for his holy beliefs. The senators in question, pleading innocence, ignorance or both, seemed on the evidence of what is known to have used, shall we say charitably, an elastic interpretation of the rules. There are rules, and then there is what is right – and like everyone, public office-holders should, when in doubt, do what is right.
To this was then added another old angle to this sordid little affair: the sight of the mighty falling. Ms. Wallin and Mr. Duffy had developed public profiles over many years on television, a medium whose audience reach can beguile those who appear regularly into believing that they are really somebodies of substance and renown, rather than minor celebrities whose words disappear from consciousness within seconds of delivery.
The danger of celebrity is that it can lead to a sense of playing by another set of rules than others less favoured by fortune, or at least of interpreting these rules in a particular way. From the beguiling celebrity of television to the utterly false celebrity of being a Canadian senator, anyone not careful with the traps can develop a distended sense of self that leads to errors of judgment.
Eventually, the courts will sort out who said what to whom, who broke which laws and rules, and who, if anyone, should pay. In the great scheme of national issues, the controversy surrounding these senators represents risibly small sums of money. But because the sums are small, they can easily be understood by people for whom billions and millions of dollars are abstractions. Anyone can relate to being in similar situations, faced with rules and regulations and trying to determine right from wrong. So the story is an easy one to follow and judge.
Which is among the reasons it has been so damaging to Mr. Harper. His hyper-partisanship and fury, the constant worry about the party “base,” the changing stories from his own mouth about people and events, the determination less to see justice take its course than to crush the miscreant senators and be rid of their meddlesome ways – all this has given voters the kind of insight into their Prime Minister that is often denied by the penumbra of stage management that surrounds his every move and utterance.
The Senate tale will have no effect whatsoever on Canadians’ well-being. Not one life will change as a result of what has transpired. No one will be richer or poorer. But then morality tales are often like that, because they turn on character.