If you ever doubted that the Canadian Senate is a toxic institution, doubt no more. Pamela Wallin, now on the verge of expulsion, got up Wednesday and made an impassioned argument that she is being railroaded without due process. Which is absolutely correct. She went on to accuse two diehard Conservative party loyalists, Marjory LeBreton and Carolyn Stewart Olsen, of waging a personal vendetta to get rid of her. “They resented me being an activist senator,” Ms. Wallin complained.
Ms. LeBreton (who, until quite recently, was leader of the government in the Senate) was clearly wounded by this attack. “I’m not threatened by Senator Wallin,” she said, sounding hurt. “I feel very sorry that she feels this way … It’s false, false, false and I am terribly troubled that she would stand here and say those things.” About the abuse of process, she said not a word.
As Norman Spector tweeted, “Gawd, this is starting to sound like a high school cafeteria.”
Actually, it’s a cross between a high-school cafeteria and the Salem witch trials. Stephen Harper and his Senate minions would like nothing better than to burn those two at the stake. Just one problem: Didn’t it occur to them that their victims might not go quietly?
No matter what you think of Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin, you’ve got to admire them for fighting back. And no matter what happens next, they’ve inflicted a lot of damage on the government. At the very least, they’ve portrayed the Prime Minister’s henchmen and -women as so desperate to please their master that they’ll resort to threats, bribery and extortion to get their way.
As for Mr. Harper, his motto is vengeance first, justice later. That’s why a two-bit scandal over dubious expense claims has morphed into a hideous embarrassment and profoundly shaken his government. The more the Conservatives have tried to rub their problem away, the bigger it’s gotten. And with an RCMP investigation in the works, anything is possible.
Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin have both portrayed themselves as innocents who followed the rules (such as they were) and were assured all along that they were totally onside. This may sound a bit disingenuous, but I think it’s basically correct. The rules were vague and loosey-goosey. When a newspaper reported that Mr. Duffy was collecting housing expenses because he said he lived mostly in PEI (he didn’t), he e-mailed Nigel Wright, Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, to say he’d done nothing wrong. Mr. Wright agreed with him, he says, and told him he’d been smeared.
But the expenses story wouldn’t go away. The people were outraged, especially Conservative voters. Mr. Harper had promised them ethics in government, and this stank. Mr. Harper sensed an existential threat. So he ordered Mr. Duffy to repay the money. “The Prime Minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth,” Mr. Duffy said Tuesday. The problem was perception. The problem was that “the rules are inexplicable to our base.” Nigel Wright was at the meeting. It was just the three of them, Mr. Duffy said – a claim Mr. Harper didn’t quite deny Wednesday.
Mr. Duffy says he was threatened with expulsion if he didn’t play along. So under duress, he agreed. He didn’t have the money, so Mr. Wright cut him a cheque. But the scandal only grew. The deal fell apart, and he was again threatened with expulsion if he didn’t quit the caucus. So he squealed.
This story strikes me as basically true. I have no idea whether Mr. Harper knew about the cheque. But his intent was clear: He’d told his staff to make the Duffy problem go away, or else. Mr. Harper appears to have made Mr. Wright the scapegoat for this mess. But many other operatives contributed to it – including the two senators who Ms. Wallin says helped knife her. Conveniently, all these people have now left the stage. The latest departure was Ms. Stewart Olsen, who stepped down Wednesday from the Senate committee overseeing audits. Coincidence? You decide. Her expenses, too, are under investigation, along with everybody else’s.
“If this place continues to function without even a nod to due process, eventually you could run out of buses and the people to throw under them,” Ms. Wallin said Wednesday.
Of course, if only Mr. Harper had reformed the Senate, instead of stacking it with rabid partisans, he wouldn’t be in this mess now. No matter what he knew or when he knew it, this debacle is entirely of his own making.