Patronage. It’s the petard with which Stephen Harper slew Paul Martin – and upon which he may yet hoist himself.
In the Liberals’ case, it was a slush fund for Quebec power brokers, wrapped in a patriotic bow. For Harper’s Conservatives, it’s the Old Faithful of patronage: that incestuous cesspool, otherwise known as the Senate.
In a recent monologue for CBC’s The National, Canada’s windbag laureate Rex Murphy compared the Senate to the Grimpen Mire – that bog of despair in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.
But the Grimpen Mire of Canadian politics oozes beyond the Red Chamber’s walls – it encompasses a broader system of patronage that serves to insulate and reward a small cabal of power brokers, at the tax payer and citizen’s expense.
Fees for services rendered
The longstanding complaint of Senate critics is the partisan manner in which seats are awarded. Most go to political allies who have been particularly helpful to the governing party. Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin fall into a different category.
While each has been a loyal party supporter and done their level best in the media to give their Tory friends a break, it is what these two well-connected celebrities offered the party as senators that was of the greatest value.
This is no secret. Wallin and Duffy racked up travel expenses in promoting the Harper government and Conservative Party. They provided a valuable service to both – though lines were blurred and crossed on numerous occasions, which is the crux of Wallin’s present troubles. Conservative senator Don Plett put it this way to The Globe and Mail:
[quote]We won the  election, and I’m sure Mike [Duffy] was very instrumental in that…He was a huge asset to us.[/quote]
Stephen Harper initially defended Wallin’s $350,000 travel bill as “reasonable” – a very reasonable return on investment, he might have said.
Neither Duffy nor Wallin should be assumed to have performed these services – raising both the financial and public profile of their patrons – free of charge. In exchange, they got a Senate seat, a lifetime pension, a jet-setting lifestyle, and some extra expenses on the side – at least, that was their impression. Duffy’s lawyer swears his client was cleared by then-Senate government leader Marjory LeBreton, in a 2009 internal memo, to declare his PEI home as his principal residence, thus enabling him to collect Ottawa living expenses.
Our version of British MP expense scandal?
Duffy and Wallin are far from alone in receiving such ungodly perks – as this Senate Scandal and its surrounding investigations have and will continue to demonstrate. Harb, Brazeau, and surely more to come.
This may prove our version of the British MP expense scandal. And it’s not cottages in Cavendish or moats cleaned in the English countryside that rankle the public. These sordid examples of our patronage system evoke deeper, more fundamental faults within our democracy. The back room dealings, the pandering to powerful interets, the secret handshakes with lobbyists, the revolving door between government and industry, the special treatment of corporations over the public and environmental interest.
Harper’s ever-changing story
In the early days of the Senate Scandal, Mike Duffy was barely scolded. Rather, the party and some of its key actors worked diligently to cover up the problem and the PM gave the repayment his stamp of approval. Though Stephen Harper throws Wright and Duffy under the bus on a daily basis now, initially, he came, relatively speaking, to both of their defenses, even claiming – falsely, we now know – that his chief of staff had resigned voluntarily.
None of this speaks to shocked indignation at Mr. Duffy’s surprise greed and betrayal that we see today.
A deal’s a deal
Rather, it hints at an arrangement – a deal. Mr. Duffy now reveals that the Conservative Party cut him a cheque for legal services in connection to the repayment of his $90,000 in illegitimate expenses (Harper is confirming this). The cheque, signed by senior party lawyer Arthur Hamilton, was purportedly in connection to this “secret” deal with Wright. Hamilton also allegedly handled Wright’s $90,000 payment. Duffy claims he was coached to lie about the source of these funds – saying they came from an RBC mortgage on his home – by Conservative insiders involved in the deal.
Even at this late stage in the game, Senator Patrick Brazeau is claiming he was recently offered a back room deal in exchange for a public apology.
These are, of course, partly allegations that need to be investigated further. But it all fits within a pattern of dealmaking between high-profile senators and the party they were brought in to help.
So we have the PM’s chief of staff and now his party paying all Mr. Duffy’s costs, then pretending everything was all cleaned up – plus at least 11 other Conservative insiders who knew about the Duffy-Wright bailout – and yet Mr. Harper had no idea and is now furious at the mere notion of all his underlings’ deceitful actions? This from the most top-down, micro-managing, control-freak of a prime minister this country has ever known!
It is only with the mushrooming RCMP investigation and the glare of the national media that this cast of characters has been cut adrift by their prime minister.
A rare window of opportunity
Patronage is the corrupt glue that binds our political system, while occasionally ensnaring its participants. Maybe Stephen Harper will evade yet another quagmire in his long, resilient political career.
Or perhaps the Senate Scandal will be his Grimpen Mire. His Alamo. His Paul Martin moment.
Time will tell. But if Canadians are serious about getting to the rotten root of the problem, they’ll seize this rare window of opportunity and demand real Senate and patronage reform now. Or sooner or later, we’ll all be dragged into the mire.