It's hell to serve your country. Just ask Senator Nancy Ruth, who often finds herself on early-morning flights, schlepping here and there to make the world a better place with nothing to sustain her but crappy airline food. "Those breakfasts are pretty awful," she explained the other day. "… Ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers."
So instead of eating it, she buys another breakfast and expenses it to us. Who'd begrudge her that?
The Auditor-General, that's who. Instead of thanking our senators for their unflagging service, Michael Ferguson and his bean-counters are digging deep into the entrails of senatorial expense accounts. Senators' e-mails and cellphone records are under the microscope. No detail is too small. On top of that, these bean-counters actually think senators should eat crappy airline food like everybody else.
Perhaps you're wondering why senators (or anyone, really) would bother filling out expense claims for breakfast, postage stamps and other penny-ante items. Don't they have better things to do? The answer is that they have assistants to do it for them.
I like Nancy Ruth. She's a genuine character – she's from Rosedale, has a considerable family fortune (in addition to her listed salary of $138,700) and dropped her last name (Jackman) some time ago as a protest against the patriarchy. For years, she's been trying to make the national anthem gender-neutral. "I'm a feminist activist, so my angle on Canadian life is to look at gender-based analysis on policy and things like that," she explained to bemused reporters this week. She's fed up with the bean-counters because "I just don't think they understand anything of what it's like to fly around the world to get here to Ottawa."
But she's not the only one who's fed up. Since the Auditor-General unleashed the sniffer dogs, the senators have gone berserk. They say his investigation is invasive, unreasonable, even unconstitutional. His spies are interviewing the neighbours to see whether senators really live where they say they do. Worst of all, he's trying to tell them what "Senate business" is. Where does he get off? The only people who have a right to decide what's Senate business is senators. Is that so hard to grasp?
"They look for a job description – well, a senator's job description is public service," one unnamed Conservative senator complained to a Canadian Press reporter. "I don't know what I will be doing tomorrow; it depends on what issue the public is engaged in, who comes through my door, who asks for advice."
That's not the only reason they're upset. The Auditor-General's report is likely to confirm what the public already believes, which is that the Mike Duffys and Pamela Wallins are more the rule than the exception. CTV reported this week that at least 40 current and former Senate members have already received letters about questionable expense claims. Various senators have already reimbursed the treasury for more than $185,000 for the 2013-14 year. Not all are Conservatives; this is a bipartisan fiasco. The final report, expected in June, is likely to be extremely painful, not only to certain individuals but to the reputation of the Red Chamber itself – not that it has much of a reputation left.
As a matter of fact, the senators have no one to blame but themselves. After the Duffy embarrassment, they demanded a thorough and independent review to clear the air. Somehow, they never thought they'd get the third degree themselves. And now they feel they're being punished retroactively, for violating rules that were exceedingly murky or did not exist. Before, they could go anywhere and do anything they liked, so long as they were doing it "as a senator." As for expense-account padding and shameless double-dipping – well, if other people did it, then why not them?
The horror of the ice-cold Camembert is unfolding just as Mr. Duffy heads to trial on charges of bribery and fraud. As scheduled, the trial will be a 41-day (!) extravaganza, with so much coverage that even the most hardened junkies will eventually get fatigued. The prosecution will argue that Mr. Duffy demanded money to repay fraudulent expenses. His defence will be that the money (in the form of a $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister's chief of staff) was forced on him. To my mind, the charges are vastly overblown, and the chance that the PM will be nailed with some nefarious deed is next to zilch. Stephen Harper's real moral stain is that he fired his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who was probably the smartest and most honourable person involved in the sorry mess. "I think this is going to end badly," he wrote to staffers back in 2013. He was correct.
Perhaps Mr. Duffy gamed the system, but he'd hardly be the only one. If so, he'll go down in history not as some arch-mastermind embezzler, but as just another greedy politician who helped himself, got found out and brought down all the others with him.
No matter how outraged we may be, the actual amount of money scammed from the public adds up to peanuts. The cost of Mr. Duffy's lengthy trial, to say nothing of all those auditors monitoring the meals of all those senators for the past 14 years, will be many times more than that. Is this whole circus even worth it?
Well, integrity in public life is a very important thing. Also, the Senate is a nuisance. It can't be abolished and reform would make things worse. Maybe this peanut-sized scandal will give us an excuse to hog-tie and hornswoggle the lot of them so they can do no further harm. In that case, yes, it will have been worth it.
Meanwhile, please send some Camembert to Nancy Ruth. She can take it with her on the plane. Just make sure it's nice and gooey.