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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

When Senate ‘business’ and ‘politics’ collide Add to ...

For as long as there has been a Senate, there have been senators who mixed straight-up partisan political work with what is called “Senate business.”

Campaign organizers, fundraisers, political strategists and prime ministerial advisers from both Liberal and Conservative parties have always served in the Senate.

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There, they made countless phone calls, used their office staff and burned through stationery and computer time on partisan political work. That’s why prime ministers put them there. That’s what prime ministers wanted from them. And since both parties knew the game, neither party went berserk and called in the auditors to check phone logs, e-mails and staff time to figure out what was political and what was not.

Which brings us to Senator Pamela Wallin, formerly of television fame, later of diplomatic renown as consul-general in New York, and now cast aside by the Conservatives, whose leader Stephen Harper put her in the Red Chamber.

That Ms. Wallin mixed politics and “Senate business” was no more or less than some senators have been doing from Senate time immemorial – and still do. Take a senator – Mr. or Ms. X – who goes home during a federal or provincial election campaign. The flight is to “home” and therefore without reproach. But while “home,” Mr. or Ms. X goes out campaigning all day for their favourite candidate. Is that not partisan political work? Should they not reimburse the taxpayer for at least part of the flight “home?” The minute you thread the needle as to what is partisan and what is not for people appointed to an overtly political body, the eye of that needle gets very narrow indeed.

Ms. Wallin, judging by the Deloitte report into her housing and travel allowances, appears to have changed her story for the purpose of explaining some flights charged to the taxpayer. Auditors note, damningly, that some travel claims had explanations that had been altered after the initial investigations into her activities began.

Ms. Wallin had asserted that legitimate errors were made by herself and her office in reviewing all of her flights, an assertion that had the ring of at least plausibility for anyone who might be asked to provide details of many trips taken years ago.

But the auditors’ report suggests some of these alterations, or ex post facto different explanations, were more than mistaken recollections, which is presumably why the auditors’ report is headed to the RCMP. And in a handful of cases, the report suggests that trips that were ostensibly for “Senate business” were actually for attendance at out-and-out partisan political events, a clear violation of travel rules.

Ms. Wallin will likely be hanged and quartered in the court of public opinion, just as she has been removed from the Conservative caucus and will be considered a pariah by her former Conservative political friends. It will be a sad end to a long and varied career from producer for As It Happens on CBC Radio to the Senate. Alas, she brought some of this ignominy on herself.

It will be forgotten in public comment that the auditors dismissed claims that she had falsified or misrepresented her housing allowances – which are the pith and substance of the allegations against three other senators, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau. Her case is therefore fundamentally different from theirs, although they will all be lumped together in the public’s mind and likely in certain media commentary.

It will probably also be forgotten that the auditors raised no concerns about 73 per cent of her travel, and referred some other claims to a Senate committee because the auditors could not discern the fine line between partisan political work and “Senate business.”

Nor will people have any sympathy (outside Saskatchewan) for how inconvenient it is to travel on a direct flight from that province to Ottawa. Anyone travelling between Ottawa and Saskatchewan is usually obliged to change planes in Winnipeg or Toronto, where Ms. Wallin has an apartment and where she sometimes overnighted.

Only perhaps a fifth of Ms. Wallin’s travel expenses were deemed inappropriate or questionable by the auditors, and a few of that share are judgment calls. The auditors critiqued the rest in such a way that she will have a hard time explaining.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story published online and in Wednesday's newspaper incorrectly said there are no direct flights between Ottawa and Saskatchewan. In fact, there are some direct flights to both Regina and Saskatoon. This version has been corrected.

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