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Senatorial misdeeds are now Harper’s responsibility

Left to right: Senators Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy are seen in this combination of three file photos. The Senate will be in a position to turf three of its own members as early as Nov. 5, 2013.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRES

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It's farewell to Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. At least that's Stephen Harper's fervent wish.

They each get two years without pay, but leave Parliament with everyone wondering how much we'll hear from them before 2015, when they're slated to return with a combined 53 years left to serve in the Senate.

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In the end, after weeks of outraged and defiant speeches, the three senators played bit roles in the big finish Tuesday night. Mike Duffy didn't show up for the vote on his suspension. Mr. Brazeau voted on the motion about himself, then slipped out of the chamber, making no comment to reporters, before the votes on the two others. Pamela Wallin stopped at a microphone to call it a sad day for democracy – "If we can't expect the rule of law in Canada, then where on Earth can we expect it?" she said – then quickly left.

But it's job done for the Prime Minister. Three political embarrassments are now, as he's taken to saying, off the public payroll. He's likely to feel some relief that it's done, though the whole operation, designed to bring a quick end to the Senate scandal story, went awry. Pulling off the Band-Aid opened a messy wound.

It's done something else: it has given Mr. Harper responsibility for policing the behaviour of senators. The standard has been set, imposed by a majority made up mostly of his appointees: senators facing allegations of misdeeds, past or future, are to be sent packing, forthwith. It's Mr. Harper's Senate now – he can't abolish it, can't make it elected, but still has to muster enough imperfect reforms to say this won't happen again.

The good news for Mr. Harper is that he can now say he took action against alleged misconduct, and that's what the Conservative leader in the Senate, Claude Carignan, was saying after Tuesday night's vote.

The argument made by Liberals and a few Conservatives, like Senator Hugh Segal, that due process was ignored because there was no examination of the evidence or hearing for the senators is reasonable. But there isn't likely to be an outpouring of public sympathy for any senator's loss of pay, let alone for the summary suspensions of those alleged to have misused their expense claims. That's probably why Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suggested his senators abstain, rather than vote against suspension, on Tuesday night (seven did.)

The rapid process, and the debate opened by the ripple of opposition within Tory ranks, underlined the fact that Mr. Harper's first instinct, nine months ago, was not immediate suspensions, but having senators pay back sums and leaving it at that. It also pushed Mr. Duffy to reveal that – in addition to Mr. Harper's then-chief of staff Nigel Wright writing a $90,000 cheque to cover expenses – PMO aides coached him on media lines and the Conservative party paid his legal fees. The story of what happened back then might still be fuelled by court documents as the RCMP investigates. Perhaps even by suspended senators.

The whole thing has also dumped the Senate on Mr. Harper's desk. His will pushed through these summary suspensions, with objections overridden by a Tory caucus made up overwhelmingly of his appointees. Senatorial misdeeds are now, politically, his responsibility.

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Perhaps audits of other senators won't turn up similar issues. But when the Ottawa Citizen reported last December that Mr. Duffy was claiming a living allowance for staying in his long-time Ottawa home, Mr. Wright wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Duffy that he understood there were "several senators with similar arrangements." If that's true, then Mr. Harper – and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair – can only hope some are Liberals.

Mr. Harper has also now gained responsibility for ensuring the Red Chamber changes long before Senators Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau return in 2015. He can't abolish it, or make it elected – he said last Friday he's been "blocked by the courts," by which he means it's unconstitutional without the consent of the provinces. Mr. Harper said the Senate now must reform itself – presumably by things like capping expenses, reducing allowances, publishing expense reports, and regular audits. But he bears that responsibility now.

Campbell Clark is a columnist in the Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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