Jackson Doughart
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Keep Duffy on the hot seat

The Charlottetown Guardian, 03 June 2013

One could claim little credit as a political commentator by penning an anti-Mike Duffy column at this point. Usually an article is best when challenging the populist talking point of the week. But P.E.I.'s ‘Stuff the Duff' campaign is most warranted, and, I would add, much overdue. For the problem with Mr. Duffy's attitude as a senator long predates his abuse of reimbursement privileges. In fact, it is doubtless this attitude - motivated as it appears to be by a base careerism - that ultimately led to such behaviour in the first place.

But underlying these points is a more serious question surrounding the public demands for accountability. The focus has now shifted to the government itself, with the preening figure of Justin Trudeau accusing the Conservatives of losing their "moral compass" - a clear attempt to engender a similar outcry to that of the sponsorship scandal a half-decade ago. This would surely be an illegitimate comparison, yet it nevertheless elicits the question of the prime minister's own responsibilities in managing the affair.

There is a serious danger that this shift in focus actually takes Duffy away from the spotlight, as Harper's own response is subject to criticism. It is astounding, for example, that Duffy has not resigned his seat in the upper house, given his admission of error and the magnitude thereof. Yet the media, which have much more to gain politically by attacking the government instead of a lowly P.E.I. senator, have seemed content to accept Duffy's departure from the Conservative caucus as punishment enough, at least for the time being. But this could only be justified if the anti-Harper campaign had merit.

This is why the hoopla about the decision by the PM's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to cut Duffy a $90,000 cheque is so peculiar. This move has been presented, by the Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, for example, as part of a "fire, stonewall, and punt" tactic by the prime minister, which the opposition is attacking as an abdication of responsibility. But does Wright's action have any bearing on the suspicions of executive corruption?

I would say not. The first test in any investigation of kleptocratic behaviour must concern the use of public funds. But the $90,000 advance to Duffy came from Wright himself, not taxpayer monies. And secondly, said advance was orchestrated as a response to the scandal, not an original part of it, and well after the matter had hit the press. After all, the original sin here was Duffy's bamboozling of expense claims, for which there is no reason to suspect governmental foreknowledge or acquiescence. What would be the motivation for such willful blindness, if Wright was prepared to give up the money to cover it anyway? Everything points, in other words, to Duffy believing he could game the system without the government finding out.

Then there is the charge that Harper ought to have come out and vocally admonished Duffy in the media, taking a stand and accepting responsibility. But if he didn't bear responsibility in the first place (aside from choosing to appoint Duffy in 2009), how could he choose to do that? And if he had been more vocal, he would simply be accused to trying to bluster his way through the scandal, detracting attention from the matter at hand.

It could also be argued that Wright's aiding Duffy with his repayment implies governmental approval of his behaviour. But paying someone's debt doesn't necessarily entail that one thinks favourably of the debtor, or the means by which he incurred it. The fact that Duffy was made to resign from the Conservative caucus suggests that the government was not impressed with his actions and wished to distance itself from him.

In a larger view, however, if Wright had abstained from aiding Duffy, it might have had one advantage: to keep the focus of attention more squarely on Duffy, who now has the opportunity to keep his Senate post and allow the scandal to pass. And the public interest is best served by keeping Duffy squarely on the hot seat.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com