The gift to Senator Mike Duffy of more than $90,000 from Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, is one of the more fanciful transactions to have taken place on a Parliament Hill in quite some time. It is not a bribe. It is not illicit. On the surface, the gift is merely an act of political charity, a wealthy politico offering a helping hand to a public servant who is down on his luck.
And yet the transaction is immediately offensive. It does not wipe clean the senator's misdeeds. It has not served the interests of the Prime Minister's Office, either, as that pinnacle of government should never be quartermaster to the faithful and feckless, as Mr. Duffy has proved to be.
Senator Duffy claimed expenses to which he was not entitled, even including a per-diem for work in Ottawa while he was really on holiday in Florida. It is good that the public purse has been repaid promptly, thanks to Mr. Wright, but the senator's own behaviour remains troubling, pathetic and in need of more scrutiny. Senator Duffy did something wrong, and many will conclude that he should be paying a greater penalty than he has.
The Harper government has usually been quite tough in dealing with parliamentarians who have been seen to have crossed a line, and caused it embarrassment, such as Maxime Bernier in 2008 (though he later returned to the cabinet in a lesser portfolio) and Helena Guergis in 2010. That makes the generosity shown to Senator Duffy all the more curious. We can speculate about the motives, but the matter has not gone away with Mr. Wright's bailout. On the contrary, it implies special treatment and favours.
Among questions to be answered is whether the loan is an infraction of the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators. A senator is not allowed to "accept a gift that could reasonably be considered to relate to the senator's position." That wording is vague. The Senate Ethics Officer, Lyse Ricard, should make a ruling on whether this provision applies here. The code also has a subsection about "gifts received as a normal expression of courtesy," for which senators have to file statements with the ethics officer about their value and source and "the circumstances under which they were given."
Mr. Wright's kindness here is hardly a "normal" courtesy. Many are offended by the involvement of such a senior political aide in trying to tidy up a mess that was of the senator's making.
On general principles – quite apart from the tortuous wording of the Senate's ethics code – Mr. Wright's gift does not suggest corruption. It may well have been a simple act of friendship, but many citizens are intuitively apprehensive about such a strange transaction. Ms. Ricard should look into the matter, and report back to the public. In Mr. Wright's case, Mary Dawson, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, is wise to move swiftly with her review.