This might otherwise have been the week that a government with a notable aversion to the legislature was reelected in a vote that included the ballots of just 52% of eligible voters. This might otherwise have been the week that Peter Penashue, he of the disputed campaign finances and boasting of holding up public projects in Newfoundland for the sake of a highway in Labrador, was soundly defeated in a by-election. Instead this was the week of Mike Duffy. At least in those places where it was not the week of Rob Ford. Or the mayor of Laval’s envelopes.
This was more specifically, at least in Ottawa and at least where people care about how public officials are behaving in regards to public funds, the week of Mr. Duffy’s housing allowance. Something like $90,172.24, including interest and some disputed per diems, spread over a few years.
Could this possibly have been worth that much?
Probably not. But then probably Mr. Duffy did not think that claiming as much might result in anything like this shemozzle.
For whatever reason, he claimed it. For whatever reason, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff thought it wise to cut a cheque to cover the entire amount. And now Mr. Duffy’s expenses during the last election are being scrutinized. And he is no longer a member in good standing of the Conservative caucus. And there are demands that the chief of staff go too. And there is something about the CRTC and Sun News. And the NDP wants more senators scrutinized. And Patrick Brazeau is claiming he has been treated unfairly (and he might even be right). And now Pamela Wallin has quit the Conservative caucus too. And, worst of all, there is not yet an end to this in sight.
It is tempting to attempt some assessment now of the last five days, but it is tricky to assess the damage of a hurricane in the middle of the storm. Consider that almost precisely a week ago, Peter Van Loan was calling on Senator Mac Harb to show “the kind of leadership” that Mr. Duffy had apparently demonstrated. Mr. Van Loan probably feels a bit silly about that now.
Nigel Wright’s decision to cover Mr. Duffy’s expenses might stand as the oddest political decision in recent memory. He might best be brought before a parliamentary committee to account for himself. He might be, as advertised, a good man who wanted to do right by the taxpayer, but then surely it wouldn’t hurt to have him explain as much in public.
The rest of it? Absent the oddity of Mr. Wright’s involvement, it would be easier to dismiss the whole matter as another silly chapter in the silly history of the Senate. As it is, it still seems profoundly silly that so much should result from a dispute over housing allowances and per diems.
To think that we should have to fuss deeply and at some length over housing and travel expenses is to despair. And on that level it seems small and grubby and weird, unworthy of inclusion on the list of the Most Disturbing Things About Canadian Democracy To Occur This Century and lacking even in the frivolity of Maxime Bernier’s misplaced briefs, which at least provided an excuse to use the term décolletage in casual conversation. One almost wishes for a mariachi band to be sent in. Or some kazoos.
Which is not to say it should not be pursued—as it quite doggedly has been—or that it lacks in import. It is a matter of solemn public responsibility and public funds and all involved need be held to account—up to and including the Prime Minister and his chief of staff—so that we might at least have some kind of faith that our system of governance remains a mostly respectable endeavour. Indeed, if there is a truly great risk to all this it is that somehow this thing—whatever it turns out to be—should come to reflect on the body politic. That something so silly as a housing allowance and the resulting spectacle of the various attempts to account for it should come to seem even slightly meaningful. It is not that this isn’t a story, it is that it seems quite ridiculous that it has become such a story. (Is it then, in that way, unfair to use Mr. Duffy’s situation to question the entire existence of the Senate? Probably. The Senate should probably not exist for all sorts of reasons that having nothing to do with Mike Duffy.)
There is another budget bill making its way through the House. And there are so many other profound matters of the system that might be pursued. And so many questions about the next two years and the decades to come after that need be asked. And so it is so tempting to want this all to be done with and resolved and the responsible parties held to account as soon as possible so that we might all move on with the serious business of governing ourselves accordingly. But now this matter of Mike Duffy and his housing allowance is serious business. Even if it seems silly to write that sentence.