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It’s not just Duffy – the Harper era is on trial

In the court of public opinion, Senator Mike Duffy may have already been found guilty. That verdict could well be shown wrong. Rules governing Senate housing expenses are vague, and Mr. Duffy has a crackerjack lawyer in Don Bayne.

Of course, it's not the fate of Mr. Duffy that has created enormous interest in this trial. It's the fate of the government. It is the morality, the integrity of the Conservative Party hierarchy, that is on trial.

Most of the accusations facing Mr. Duffy himself involve alleged little embezzlements relating to expense accounts. But abuse of the public trust by way of an alleged coverup operation involving top officials in the Prime Minister's Office, as Mr. Duffy's team claim, is much more serious.

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It may well be shown that Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't know about the $90,000 payout to Mr. Duffy by former chief of staff Nigel Wright. But we know from an RCMP affidavit that many of his senior officials knew. Mr. Harper could try to claim he is not responsible for their actions, but that tactic is unlikely to succeed politically. When former prime minister Jean Chrétien faced accusations around the sponsorship scandal, it was never shown that he had personal knowledge of Montreal ad agency men running off with monies from that program. But that didn't save the Liberals from damaging consequences.

More serious for the Conservatives is that the Senate scandal might reopen the vault on the larger abuse-of-power narrative that has dogged the Harper government. It may be seen as a microcosm of the serial breaches of the public trust: the undercover dirty tricks, the smear campaigns against opponents, the altering of official documents, the democracy-shredding omnibus bills.

If you wanted to go into detail, you could fill an entire page of news print with the ethical transgressions of this government that have undermined the democratic process.

They've become so common they hardly make news any more. A recent example is Bill C-51, the new and widely condemned security legislation that interferes with Canadians' privacy. What did the Conservatives do? They voted to block Canada's privacy commissioner from testifying at committee hearings on the bill. It's a small example of how petty and pathetically partisan they are.

They have plenty of enablers, though. The apologists point to other governments and, like children, they say, "Oh, but they did it too." You can always find an example from the past to try and excuse your present-day delinquence. But the Harper enablers are way off in trying to invoke relativism. On the moral bankruptcy charts, this government is leagues ahead of its forerunners.

Other defenders say this process stuff is inside baseball that Canadians don't really care about. Those who think this way might wish to review some history.

Going all the way back to the 1950s, ethics has been a major player in the fate of our governments. A prime reason for the defeat of the Liberals in 1957 was the defiant invoking of closure by the Louis St. Laurent government in the TransCanada Pipeline debate. A series of scandals involving his Quebec ministers were instrumental in preventing Lester Pearson from ever winning a majority. In 1984, Pierre Trudeau saddled successor John Turner with a tawdry list of patronage appointments. They hung over Mr. Turner like a dead skunk in his subsequent demolition at the hands of Brian Mulroney.

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The Mulroney government's reputation was then damaged by ministerial scandals. Sleaze, real or imagined, tarred Mr. Mulroney's own reputation, contributing to his decision to step down in 1993 when his popularity was below sea level. And we all know the impact of the sponsorship scandal on the Liberals of Mr. Chrétien and Paul Martin.

With those Liberals, it took time and a major scandal before Canadians made them pay a big price. With the Harper Conservatives, ethical issues, including the Prime Minister being found in contempt of Parliament, did not factor into the 2011 election result.

There was no Senate scandal then. There is now.

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