“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” said Dr. Freud. Bill Clinton knew it, and many Canadian political commentators would do well to remember it too. It’s become a minor intellectual exercise sifting facts from the speculation and self-interested hyperbole in political news coverage, and the story of the lamentable Senator Mike Duffy is no exception.
A straightforward account of the most likely chain of events in the case was given by the National Post’s John Ivison some weeks after Nigel Wright’s resignation. On arrival in the Red Chamber, Duffy feasted on expenses like a PEI seal at an oyster bar. Like other Senators who pretend to live in their constituencies, he claimed a housing allowance for his Bytown digs. When the story broke, Prime Minister Harper ordered him to pay back the money. Duffy refused, so Harper Chief of Staff Wright wrote a personal cheque to pay back taxpayers, kill the story, and protect his boss. But blaming the shifty Senator and rationally explaining the actions of others in the periphery was just too dull, and didn’t even begin to feed the yawning maw of the 24-hour news cycle.
Last month the RCMP laid 30 criminal charges against Duffy related to rapacious expense claims, plus one related to the cheque he received from Wright. This revitalized the story that’s been making news for almost two years, and launched a whole new barrage of speculation that Duffy’s trial will land smack in the middle of the October 2015 election campaign. He’ll be singing like a bird in the prisoner’s dock while the Prime Minister is fighting off a court order to testify, and the Harper Conservative era will end with an ignominious whimper.
Duffy’s portrayal of himself as a victim and his actions as somehow understandable, if ethically-challenged, makes for a potent political cocktail because the Duffy-as-victim angle jives with some of the “memes” constructed by political opponents and analysts of the Harper government. No matter how convoluted or counterfactual these narratives, cobbled together with various unrelated facts and fiction, many now have a life of their own.
The victim meme fits into the broader “vindictive Harper” meme (see also: “angry Harper” meme) expounded by some commentators, even some conservative ones. This postulates that every disgruntled former Conservative staffer or politician is a victim of egregious treatment from the party, PMO and, of course, the Prime Minister. All of them are victims who were thrown under the bus and, whatever the circumstances of their estrangement from the government, it had nothing to do with their own actions.
The challenge Duffy faces is obscuring his relationship to the expense-claim cookie jar. Assuming the jar was open, with unclear rules governing consumption of cookies, he still has to justify taking and eating so many of them. Tough slog that, but Duffy’s been preparing for this day a long time. Twenty-two years ago, on the night of referendum the Charlottetown Accord referendum, then-CTV News host Duffy was covering it from a Reform Party gathering in Calgary’s Palliser Hotel. One of us was arranging an interview for him, and he confided that he had arranged for a personal elevator – “due to his heart condition”. On the ride up to his suite he garrulously quipped, “Please don’t tell anyone, Frank Magazine will have a field day”.
But Frank’s Puffster knows a powerful meme when he sees it, and he’s latched on to a good one in the “evil PMO” meme (see: “nefarious scheme/monstrous fraud”). This portrays the Prime Minister’s Office as all-powerful, all-seeing and all-knowing. It is able to orchestrate – with a relatively small, but obviously malignantly gifted staff – complex, Byzantine plots which are barely discernable to even the keenest observer. It is left to dedicated whistle-blowers like Mr. Duffy and ethically-pure, well-intentioned opposition politicians to uncover this. This takes us almost into 9-11 as an inside job territory, for you would need three times the malignantly gifted staff, and the ethics of a Liberal PMO, to execute the nefarious schemes conjured by Duffy, the opposition, and their press gallery publicists.
What is perhaps most frustrating for Conservatives is the idea that there is “ethical equivalence” between Tory transgressions and those of their Liberal predecessors. It is well known that the Liberals presided over an extensive kleptocracy during the Chretien era. They set up organizations within government to funnel public money to the Liberal Party and election of its candidates, defrauding Canadians out of tens of millions of dollars. Besides the soliciting and collecting of political donations from charities and government organizations, there was the seven-figure theft of the Sponsorship Scandal and the nine-figure waste of the HRSDC and Gun Registry boondoggles. The current government should be held accountable for its abuses of power and policy fumbles, but it seems cruel and unusual to see them hammered relentlessly over public money that was repaid in the Duffy affair, or has not actually been spent in the so-called F-35 scandal.
The Harper government should also be held accountable for appointing Duffy, and his disgraceful Senate colleagues Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, in the first place. Making good political appointments is crucial to good governance. These appointments were failures of judgment at best; crass and opportunistic political machinations at worst. Maybe it was all part of the PM’s diabolical plan to discredit the Senate so he could reform or abolish it, as columnist Rex Murphy has sarcastically suggested. Whatever the motive, it appears a hard-earned lesson has been learned, and there may never be another Senate appointment.
The bottom line for Conservatives is how the Duffy affair and its associated memes will affect next year’s election. A trial featuring daily doses of imaginative yarn-spinning by the Old Duff certainly won’t help them. At least one analyst (again, Mr. Ivison) thinks the Duffy trial, and possible testimony by the Prime Minister, might be a tipping point for the government. When we first saw the tipping point reference, we thought he meant the point where the public realized this was farce, not tragedy; and that people would finally have had their fill of the spectacle.
This is where we hope the sense of the public will land, judging the government by the sum of its achievements and failures rather than on the tortuous psyche of one Senator. Of course the opposition will continue to weave its alternate reality, drawing on the score of invented memes and conspiracies. But that too is farce.