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editorial

Senator Mike Duffy leaves the courthouse after being cleared of bribery and fraud charges in Ottawa last week.Chris Wattie/Reuters

The acquittal last week of Senator Mike Duffy on 31 criminal charges related to his expense claims is not that shocking for one uncomfortable reason: Everything Mr. Duffy did fell within the bounds of normal Senate misfeasance.

That he booked trips to see his children and then retroactively dredged up Senate business in order to cover the cost of his business-class flights? Fine. The rules allow it.

That he made his physical trainer a consultant on seniors' health issues and consulted with the consultant while pedalling an exercise bike and charged the cost – sorry, the consulting fee – to the taxpayer? Nothing to see here, the judge said.

That he collected $900 a month to cover the expenses of the home he'd owned in Ottawa for years by claiming the cottage he'd owned in PEI for years was suddenly his primary residence? He was eligible for it, or at least not ineligible.

Ultimately, it was to Mr. Duffy's great benefit that the Senate's vague rules allowed his lawyer to demonstrate that the Senator had no intention, or need, to be deceitful or corrupt.

The actions of Stephen Harper's PMO, on the other hand, were indeed based in deceit and manipulations, and carried out in a clandestine manner, the judge ruled. Led by Nigel Wright, the PMO misled the Canadian public about Mr. Duffy's expenses. Through threats and cajoling, PMO officials coerced Mr. Duffy into accepting a secret $90,000 personal cheque from Mr. Wright ("a mere bagatelle," the judge noted) to pay back housing expenses that had become a public relations problem for the Harper government, and forced the Senator to confess to mistakes he hadn't made.

"The political, covert, relentless unfolding of events is mind-boggling and shocking," the judge wrote. "Putting aside the legalities with respect to the manoeuvres undertaken…why is the PMO engaged in all of this activity when they believed that Senator Duffy's living expense claims might very well have been appropriate?"

If this verdict demonstrates anything, it is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's efforts to reduce partisanship in the Senate are a welcome relief from the machinations of the Harper era. But the reality is that little has changed. Mr. Duffy will return to much the same Senate, with much the same rules around expenses, as when he was suspended two-and-a-half years ago. Now that's a crime.