Skip to main content

At the head of the table will be Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who was sworn in as Ontario’s first female premier just six months ago.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

Two events in the news this week offer proof that scandal is relative, having more to do with how the public sees a government than with the facts on the ground.

Ontario voters, who have sustained both the Conservatives in Ottawa and the Liberals at Queen's Park, appear to be as angry over a penny-ante affair involving a few senators' expenses as they are over the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in cancelled gas-plant contracts. What gives?

What may give is that voters do not address scandals objectively, but as a sign of something bigger.

In Ottawa, we will learn this week how much Pamela Wallin may have improperly expensed as a Conservative senator. It is becoming clear that, while some rules may have been broken, and even some laws, any improperly expensed travel or living expenses by senators will cost the taxpayer little or no money.

Senator Mike Duffy paid back the $90,000 he owed – albeit with inappropriate help from Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper's former chief of staff. Senator Wallin has promised to pay back everything she owes. Senators Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau are resisting, but the Senate is taking steps to deduct at least some of what they should be giving back from their pay.

At the very worst, the taxpayer may be out some tens of thousands of dollars. And there is no tangible evidence the Prime Minister condoned or was even aware of anything improper.

The situation in Ontario is far more serious. The gas-plant contracts –which appear to have been cancelled for purely political reasons – have cost taxpayers $585-million, at last count. There was conspiratorial talk of strong-arming the Speaker of the Legislature into reversing a ruling unfavourable to the government. The Liberals (taking a page from the federal Conservatives) had the legislature prorogued in an effort to shut down debate.

As scandals go, they don't come much riper. And Dalton McGuinty did step down as premier – though after nine years he was due for retirement anyway. But under Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals have fought back, doing better than expected in recent by-elections. There's a reasonable chance the Liberals could actually survive gas-plantgate.

Ontario voters may be overplaying the Senate expenses scandal while underplaying the gas plant scandal. This could say something about how they view the two governments.

If the voters are moving toward the conclusion that the Harper government is tired and arrogant and secretive and possibly corrupt, then they will latch onto anything that fits the hypothesis. The Senate expenses scandal fits the hypothesis.

If they shudder at the thought of making Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak or NDP Leader Andrea Horwath premier, then they will search for a reason to forgive the Liberals.

It certainly helps that Mr. Hudak is facing a leadership challenge from within his own party, and that Ms. Horwath has done nothing to suggest the NDP has learned from the mistakes of two decades past, when it last governed the province.

Nothing is cast in stone. Though Mr. Harper faces, in Justin Trudeau, the most dangerous Liberal leader since Paul Martin, he still has time and space to recover momentum, by successfully concluding major trade or pipeline deals.

If all else fails, the Conservatives could campaign on abolishing the Senate, in an effort to turn a negative into a positive.

And in Ontario, the provincial Liberals and Conservatives appear to be equally popular, or unpopular. Mr. Hudak could yet be premier after the next election.

No one can predict the political future in Ottawa or Toronto. All we know is that two scandals have thrown everything up in the air, even though the one is so very much smaller than the other. Scandals are funny that way.