This week’s by-election results — two for the Tories, two for the Liberals — suggest that voters are not too much concerned by the shenanigans in the Senate. Nor should they be. Mike Duffy was accused of excessive aggression in submitting his expenses, and Nigel Wright paid $90,000 out of his pocket to keep the taxpayers whole.
This is the pecuniary issue: The PM’s chief of staff advanced his own money that was cycled on a fast track to the national treasury. It was the reverse of embezzlement.
There is not one whit of evidence that Wright advanced Duffy this money for any illegal, unethical, or even controversial purpose. Had he been paying Duffy a bribe to shut something down, acquire altered testimony before an official inquiry, or other favours or conveniences for the regime, that would be a very serious matter. But as far as can be told from what is public now, Wright paid the money so Duffy could pay it; and so that the embarrassment to the government implicit in a Conservative senator taking liberties with his official expenses on that scale, would be avoided. On its face, there is nothing illegal or reprehensible in that.
The execution was sloppy. The transfer of funds would have been better as a forgivable “loan,” authenticated in writing as for no consideration in special favours by Duffy to the government, and from someone less prominent than Wright, even if he had been the ultimate source, and the entire record of the Prime Minister’s Office should have been clear in memos or emails. But sloppy execution isn’t a crime, and it is very difficult to imagine what possessed Cpl. Greg Horton, the author of the recently released RCMP affidavit regarding Duffy and Wright, to imagine that he had unearthed a tangle of possible bribes in this affair.
Most Canadians are brought up, as I was, to regard the RCMP as a distinguished police force, not only because of its impressive uniforms and colourful history on the Western and Northern frontiers, but from commendable work in many cases, including uprooting the Soviet espionage network in Canada following the Gouzenko defection at the start of the Cold War (which gave Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King an excuse to take his private railway car to Washington and the R.M.S. Queen Mary to Britain to brief U.S. President Truman and British Prime Minister Attlee personally).
This idealized view of the federal police has survived many disappointments, such as the burning down of an unoffending Quebec farmer’s barn to prevent a meeting of Quebec separatists with U.S. black radicals in the late 1970s; and the entire, prolonged, unrepentant smear job against Brian Mulroney for declaring, on the false information of Stevie Cameron O.C., that he had taken a $5-million bribe on the sale of Airbuses to Air Canada; and the interminable wait inflicted on Jean Chrétien while he stood in night attire with an eskimo sculpture in his hand for self-defence, for the security unit at the prime minister’s official residence to apprehend a separatist lunatic prowling the corridors at 4 a.m. to assassinate him with a knife.
But there is something very peculiar about a system that, as in the Duffy case, allows an RCMP corporal to publish such an inflammatory series of allegations against a distinguished figure of the private and public sector such as Nigel Wright. Corporals don’t normally have such influence. (Contrary to malicious rumour, Napoleon was never a corporal; he was a cadet and then an officer. Hitler was a corporal, serving four years in combat in World War I and earning two Iron Crosses, but he had no authority at that point in his career except to carry messages under fire, go over the top into no man’s land and charge enemy machine guns, and to defend his trench.)
Corporal Horton may have a case for breach of trust against Mike Duffy, though at this point it seems as likely to be simply over-ambitious expense claims of the kind solved by dollars and not prosecutions (and those dollars have been repaid, although the provenance of them is a matter of legitimate interest). But from my reading of the affidavit, the case for fraud is not well-based on anything that is publicly known.
I don’t see anything problematic in Gerstein’s position. He’s no shiftier than most party fundraisers
Much is made of Senator Irving Gerstein’s preparedness, on behalf of the treasury of the Conservative Party, to pay $32,000 of Duffy’s $90,000 assessment, but not more; of Nigel Wright’s alleged imposition of the condition that Duffy stop talking about the expenses issue; and of Stephen Harper’s assertion that he could answer questions in parliament only on the basis of what he could recall.
I don’t see anything problematic in Gerstein’s position. He’s no shiftier than most party fund-raisers, and preparedness to pay one sum but not another three times as large merely means that he sees nothing wrong in principle with repaying the taxpayers in the higher interests of reduction of unfavorable controversy, but that three times as much was not justified. The senator was long in the retail business, and is accustomed to judging whether he is getting value for money.
There also is no reason, on the basis of what is publicly known, that Wright meant anything more than that Duffy should do what he could to take the issue of his expenses out of the sight of the media. The prime minister’s chief of staff is not there to encourage and solicit negative publicity for the government.
Stephen Harper’s position is more complicated. In response to his position that he would not necessarily recall exact dates and conversations on a matter that he had no reason would bubble up to such importance, the hostile media have started grumbling with affected ominousness about Harper telling his staff to keep him in ignorance and thus that he was presumably acting in dereliction of his duty to know every detail of Mike Duffy’s travel expenses. But no prime minister is lumbered with any such duty, and one of the reasons to have a large and professional staff is to take care of secondary issues. Otherwise, the prime minister would be dusting his office and picking up the mail at the parliamentary post office.
That said, the official responses in Parliament from Harper have been too evasive. MPs are entitled to have their questions answered, and the prime minister and others should take the trouble to do this.
What has been especially unbecoming, and has failed to impress anyone an all political sides, has been the swift evolution of Harper’s and Gerstein’s and others Conservatives’ references to Nigel Wright — from respectful sadness at his sloppy execution of a well-intentioned task, to implications that he was dismissed for cause because of ethical shortcomings. It ill-behoves those so well-traveled in the pale of political chicanery to affect such moral exaltedness. Those who do not practice loyalty to those who have earned it will receive none. And in political life, especially, what is sown is reaped.
But overall, this remains pretty thin gruel as a scandal. John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier and H.A. Langevin received from a claimant for his government’s patronage (Sir Hugh Allan), and dispensed to their candidates, $162,000, in 1872, and were forced from office for six years. W.L.M. King did not really crack down on massive Prohibition-era smuggling by his Customs minister and his friends, and accepted favours directly, though perhaps naïvely, in the Beauharnois affair, of $25,000 and a $400 hotel bill in Bermuda (and was out of office for five years, though chiefly for other reasons). Jean Chrétien lobbied for decisions that produced a personal benefit to him in the Shawinigate affair, and failed to notice over $100-million that was squandered or trousered by friends of the Liberal Party in the Sponsorship debacle (and was pushed into retirement by his own party).
Nigel Wright, by contrast, gave a shopworn senator $90,000 to pay back to the government. Let’s not emit synchronized screams for a lynching yet, whatever the corporals say.
Conrad Black is the founder of the National Post. His columns regularly appear in the National Post on Saturdays.
Mr. Black graciously allowed us to reprint this article on CFN.