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Senate scandal: the forest and the trees

John Bell

October 26, 2013

It is a measure of just how sleazy Stephen Harper is, that when standing next to him Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin seem almost tolerable.
As the senate scandal continues to unfold, it is clear that the proroguing of parliament designed by Harper to let the scandal die down only afforded them an opportunity to organize their counter-attack. There is so much mud slinging and “he said she said” going on that it is useful to step back and look at the big picture.
The senate and Harper
The Canadian Senate is the unelected chamber of Canada’s government, the so-called house of “sober second thought”. In reality it seldom challenges government legislation. The senate has always been a dumping ground for party hacks, a means of paying off political favours. And there they sit unchallenged and usually unnoticed until age 75. Once Stephen Harper was vocally critical of the senate, calling for it to be converted to an elected body, or abolished outright. His dislike of the senate was directly proportionate to the number of Liberal-appointed senators. But a few years in government cured that, as he appointed a slew of Tory hacks to tip the balance in his favour.
But Harper did not restrict himself to the usual anonymous backroom loyalists. With an overwhelming desire to achieve a majority government, he came up with a plan: appoint well-known media faces, loyal to the Tory cause, who could help in the next election campaign. Enter Duffy and Wallin, journalists who never hid their right-leaning bias. The strategy worked. Duffy in particular was a hit on the campaign trail, the affable Abbott to Harper’s humourless Costello.
But it was the very obvious presence of Wallin and Duffy on the national campaign that began to draw scrutiny to their senate performance and expense account padding. Taxpayers paid thousands of dollars to fly them to partisan election events, claimed as senate business. They played fast and loose with housing and travel bills, severely bending if not breaking rules and ethics.
When the heat was on, they repaid hundreds of thousands in questionable expenses. It was discovered that Harper’s chief of staff covered Duffy’s repayment of $90,000, and tried to fob it off as a favour to an old friend. Nigel Wright resigned to cover the boss’s ass, as Harper maintained he knew nothing of the scam. Duffy and Wallin resigned (or were kicked out of) the Tory caucus but continued to draw pay as senators.
Tory cover-up and hypocrisy
Which brings us to the present. Harper came back from his prorogue vacation with a plan to purge the scandalous senators. If he thought they would go meekly, falling on their swords to protect the Tory regime as Wright had done, he was mistaken. In emotional speeches to the senate, both Duffy and Wallin claim they have been victims of a lynch-mob mentality. Harper and his PMO staff all knew about plans to cover Duffy’s expenses. The first idea was to use Conservative Party money, but when that was considered too risky Wright offered to pony up.
Both Duffy and Wallin contend they were forced by the PMO to admit to crimes they had not committed. Duffy said that all his expenses had been approved by Tory senate leader Marjorie LeBreton (now conveniently retired). They were both told it was okay to bill taxpayers for partisan travel. It was okay to fudge housing costs. Both were good Tory foot soldiers, just following orders. And their loyalty was repaid by–gasp–cynical political expedience.
I have no doubt that Duffy and Wallin are telling the truth as they see it, and I truly appreciate their efforts to drag Harper to hell with them. That doesn’t mean I have a bit of sympathy for them. They knowingly accepted their political appointments not as public servants, not as guardians of democracy, by as shills for a political agenda designed to enrich the tiny elite at the expense of working people.
To hear Duffy moan that if he were fired from the senate he would lose his health benefits–“Who’s going to buy the heart drugs I need”–was nothing short of obscene. This from a member of a government that is robbing workers of their pensions, working to stealthily privatize health care, and trying to pass legislation to bust unions. Duffy is from down east, whether it is his residence or not, so maybe he knows an old maritime saying my father was fond of quoting: “My heart is pumpin’ piss for ya.”
But again, let’s step back from the particulars of this scandal. Remember that virtually every cabinet minister Harper has appointed–Vic Toews, Maxime Bernier, Lisa Raitt, Helena Guergis, Peter MacKay, Julian Fantino, Joe Oliver, etc, etc–have been publicly embarrassed or implicated in a scandal.
The scandalous system of capitalism
The senate scandal, like all the scandals surrounding the Harper Tories and the Liberal government before them, are the symptoms. The actors cannot help being dragged into the muck. They are products of, and defenders of, a scandalous system called capitalism. They believe it is their right and their duty to grind us down, use us up and throw us away–capitalism dictates it so.
With rare exceptions, members of parliament and senators, whether elected in a deeply flawed pantomime of democracy or appointed, are not truly public servants. As figureheads of the state, they are duty bound to serve and protect the system of profiteering against the wants and needs of the majority. As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.”
Scandals are illuminating and–I’ll admit it, even entertaining–but let’s resist the urge to get distracted by the lurid details. Otherwise we won’t see the squalid forest of capitalism for the trees of corruption.

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