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Despite trying to get Canadians to forget about the senate scandals by promising everyone better phone plans, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his party are currently taking a beat down at the senate and in the House of Commons. The heat is coming from the debate on whether conservative senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin should be charged with “gross negligence” and suspended without pay for breaking senate rules on house and traveling expenses.
Harper probably thought that he could impress his party and Canadians by blaming everything on these senators, but clearly that isn't happening. It turns out that instead of making a smooth getaway, Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin are dragging the PM down with them, and it isn’t pretty.
Throughout Duffy’s first serious response to the allegations he has been facing for months, he denied purposely overspending. Instead, he said that when he was first accused in December 2012, he immediately went to the Prime Minister’s Office to ask what to do, but they assured him he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
On Tuesday Duffy revealed that when media pressure persisted, it was Harper—not chief of staff Nigel Wright—who changed his mind and ordered Duffy to pay back the $90 000 in housing expenses. That means Harper lied and was responsible and not Wright – the guy who was fired when the news came out. You could almost feel the collective "OHHHH SNAP!" when Duffy dropped that bomb in the senate.
Then Duffy—who said a suspension would mean he won’t be able to afford treatment for his heart condition and presumably didn't want to go the Breaking Bad route—went on to blame Harper further, quoting him as saying, “It’s not about what you did, it’s about the perception of what you did that’s been created in the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base.”
Inexplicable is right. As Brazeau fairly pointed out, the accounting firm in charge of the spending investigation admitted the rules in the senate are pretty freaking ambiguous. For instance, before May senators could write off their expenses using the “honour system”, something usually reserved for fundraising chocolate boxes at a cash register and not the upper house of a national parliament.
Meanwhile, down the hall in the House of Commons, Harper denied all the allegations including ever saying the above statement and stuck with his decision to fire Wright and suspend the three senators.
In his own words: "We've been very clear that we expect all parliamentarians to respect the letter and the spirit of any rules regarding expenses, and if they do not respect that, then they can expect there to be consequences and accountability for their actions.”
When it came time for Pamela Wallin’s defense on Wednesday, this scandal had fallen deeply into a bitter game of ‘he said, she said’ that many on Twitter were comparing to Mean Girls or a classic cat fight.
Wallin, a cancer survivor who said suspending her pay would endanger her health, blamed the PM for “backroom politics of the most odious kind” and said that she was being targeted for “being an activist senator.”
So, now that you’re up to speed, what do we make of all this?
Here’s what I think happened: Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin broke the rules, but since everyone in the senate does it, the PMO didn’t think it would be a big deal, so, they kept it quiet and tried to secretly pay everything back. The media caught them and now they look stupid, so they are doing their best to deny, deny, deny.
The NDP and Liberals have pointed out that Harper appointed these guys and that makes him responsible from day one. Sure, but he only appointed them because if there has to be a senate—something Harper hates—it might as well be filled with Tories, right? In fact, Harper has already launched an investigation into reforming or abolishing the senate regardless of whether all the provinces agree or not.
Considering how Harper has been against the senate for years, you might think that this whole scandal is a Harper conspiracy to get us to look badly on it. Maybe, but if that was the case then that plan completely backfired this week when Harper got put into the crosshairs. No matter how you slice it, the Senate is a joke and the Conservative Party is in shambles.
As for the motion to suspend the three senators, even though it would be fun to throw them under the bus, especially when an angry, puffy-faced guy like Duffy refused to address paying a friend $65 000 for doing nothing and Brazeau is about to go on trial for sexual assault (which was postponed until February due to Brazeau’s “health problems” even though he seemed fine enough to appear at the hearings), suspending them does not respect due process. Everyone deserves their day in court, especially when other senators who haven’t been audited undoubtedly made spending errors of their own. Either way, the Senate is a just a colossal waste of money, and suspending three senators does not fix that.
On Wednesday Wallin said, “If the Senate proceeds with this motion, I believe it is the beginning of the end of this chamber.” Let's all hope she's right.
Follow Joel Balsam on Twitter: @joelbalsam