I love a juicy scandal. What better way to fill a column than stories about greedy, lying politicians getting their comeuppance, and secret payoffs, and explosive revelations, and the decline of democracy as we know it? Besides, Stephen Harper is not most people’s favourite guy. So it pains me to report that despite the most recent breathless headlines, the Senate scandal has run out of legs.
The first problem is that nobody can figure out what Nigel Wright did wrong (apart from his decision to go into public service in the first place). In fact, he is the drama’s most sympathetic character. Confronted with a godawful mess, he tried to do the right thing, at his own expense, for all concerned, including the taxpayers. His reward was to be royally jerked around by the obnoxious character he was trying to help, repudiated and trash-talked by the Prime Minister (a man he’d been both close and loyal to for many years), and unaccountably accused of fraud, bribery and breach of trust by the RCMP.
According to a number of top lawyers, these accusations – they’re contained in what’s called an “Information to Obtain” document, released last week – make no sense. They’ll be amazed if they ever result in criminal charges. Mr. Wright wasn’t trying to get a personal benefit by writing a cheque to Mr. Duffy. He was trying to get Mr. Duffy to comply with the law. “The funds were given to Duffy to bring the Duffy expenses controversy to an end, like settling a lawsuit,” Rob Walsh, until recently the top legal adviser to Parliament, told the CBC. “This is not fraud, nor is it breach of trust.”
The government’s early spin was that Mr. Wright was just trying to help a friend. In fact, he loathed the man. To Mr. Wright, public service was a calling. To Mr. Duffy, it was an invitation to the trough.
No one can seriously believe that Mr. Wright engineered a vast criminal conspiracy from the PMO. Even my most Harper-loathing friends don’t think he did anything wrong, and that if he did, it was an innocent mistake.
So if there’s no crime, how can there be a cover-up? Here’s where ordinary people lose the thread. The story has been buried in a blizzard of minutiae and dark insinuations that don’t amount to much. So what if the PMO’s staff leaned on Conservative senators to manipulate the doings of various committees? As Mr. Walsh points out, it happens all the time. It’s called politics.
This is not to say that Mr. Harper had no idea what was going on, or that he’s been straight with us. Au contraire. His evolving accounts of events have been as snaky as a mountain road. In retrospect, I’m sure he wishes he’d fed the miscreants to the sharks from the start. But they’d been useful to the party, and the rules (as opposed to “the right thing to do”) were vague. So he authorized his staff to try to find a nonviolent solution. But then the problems got bigger, and things fell apart, and Mr. Wright tried to be a good guy. And then they all had to go, including Mr. Wright, whom Mr. Harper has now transformed into a villain.
Mr. Harper’s version of this morality play is very simple. He saw senators behaving badly, and now he’s gotten rid of them, and any funny stuff that happened in between is not his fault. He is betting that’s as deep as most people care to go, and I’m betting he’s right. The bad guys were punished, and all the rest is too hard to follow.
Mr. Wright, meantime, has learned that no good deed goes unpunished. It’s a cautionary tale for all of those who might wish to donate their skills to public life.