After more than three years of accusations and counteraccusations, mountains of documents, 31 charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, 62 days of trial – along with fevered commentary about crimes and cover-ups and abuse of power extending to the highest office of the land – we wind up with this? Zip. Nada. Mike Duffy (and possibly his fellow senators) has been redeemed.
Surely the faction most crushed by the vindication of Mr. Duffy must be the news media. As they told it, democracy itself was under threat from Stephen Harper's nefarious Conservative government. But their hoped-for mountain of scandal turned out to be a molehill.
Mr. Duffy was no master fraud artist. He was nothing more than an unusually diligent hack, sent forth to do his master's bidding. He argued that he was only following the rules determined by the Senate itself, and the judge found that this was largely true. His expense claims for his residency were clearly ridiculous (because he clearly lived in Ottawa, not PEI). But it turns out that David Tkachuk, the Senate boss who controlled the rules, told him to make the claims. So whose fault was that?
I did think Mr. Duffy might be nailed for putting his personal trainer on contract. I thought that was a stretch. Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt did, too. "Unorthodox," he said. But not criminally illegal. From the start, Mr. Duffy's lawyer argued that these matters were administrative issues, not criminal ones. This is a reasonable defence, with which the judge agreed.
What's not in doubt is that the Harper government brought its troubles on itself. After the Senate came under fire for dubious expense practices – including those that were legal under the existing rules – Mr. Duffy's political bosses tried to throw him overboard. When he strenuously objected to this wretched ingratitude, the boss's fixers tried to shut him up and make him whole, whether he wanted them to or not. And that didn't work out so well, as we know.
The media who made so much of this sorry mess weren't really after Mr. Duffy's scalp, of course (although he did make an undeniably attractive target). They were after the prime minister and his loyal fixers. Tantalizingly, Mr. Duffy himself had even promised that he would rip the lid off a "monstrous fraud." But there was no fraud – just a bungled and ethically dubious effort by the PM's henchmen to manage their way out of a public relations disaster.
What, then, have we learned? We have learned that the Senate is not, after all, an independent chamber of sober second thought. Instead, it is a sinecure for partisan cronies and bagmen who take their marching orders from their political masters. Quelle surprise! And the prime minister surrounded himself not with disinterested bureaucrats, but with ruthless and partisan control freaks. (Ditto.)
This was one of those comfortingly Canadian scandals – much ado about not much at all. All of his contested expense claims (plus the contested claims of all the other senators put together) added up to a few hundred thousand dollars. How much did this trial cost in time and money? Don't ask.
Did the Duffy affair hurt the Conservatives? No doubt. Did it cost them the election? No. It was just one more barnacle on their hull. And now they're gone, so no more damage can be done.
You could argue that this whole tawdry tale had one good outcome – it gave a major boost to the cause of Senate reform. But did it, really? It doesn't change the fact that senators are unelected and unaccountable, but remain free to use their power in whatever way they choose. It doesn't matter if these senators are "independent." The entire institution is profoundly undemocratic.
As for the Old Duff, he always insisted he'd be vindicated. Everyone thought that was just big talk. But everyone was wrong. Now we'll have to listen to him crow.