In April 2010, Mike Duffy came to Brooks, Alta. At the Heritage Inn Hotel and Convention Centre in the town of just over 13,000, the senator addressed a provincial Progressive Conservative fundraiser attended by about 160 people. “People were excited to come and see him,” says Kimberley Sharkey, a city councillor who introduced Duffy. The senator praised his party’s history and joked about his own, telling the story of how he once mimicked Jean Chrétien, not realizing the prime minister was standing behind him. Sharkey says his impression was dead-on. But mostly, Duffy championed the Conservative cause. “Today there is one party and only one party that speaks for all Canadians and speaks for all Canadians like you and me,” he said, according to a local newspaper’s account of the evening. “That’s Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.”
Afterward, Duffy stuck around for about 40 minutes to pose for photos. “Everybody wanted a picture with him,” Sharkey recalls. “He was just really engaged and took time with each person, he didn’t rush.” A local photographer developed the photos and sent them to Duffy, who autographed them and sent them back to Brooks. The city was “in awe” that Duffy made time to stop there, considering his busy schedule, says Sharkey.
That darling of the dinner circuit and carrier of the party flame is no longer, at least officially, a Conservative. A little more than three years after that night in Brooks, Duffy would announce his resignation from the caucus as a result of the “significant distraction” the controversy over his expenses had become. “There are a growing number of questions about Mr. Duffy’s conduct that don’t have answers,” a government source would say. “Mr. Duffy will have to answer them as an independent senator.”
Duffy’s political career is now a spectacle, a result that is perhaps not out of line with the controversy and showmanship of his first 4½ years as a senator. Indeed, though the saga of his expenses might now define his tenure and threatens to overwhelm the Prime Minister who appointed him, it has also obscured what has been an entertaining and tumultuous tenure in the red chamber. Following the trail of newspaper clippings and Senate debate transcripts Duffy left in his wake, a portrait emerges of a senator who might not have established himself as a giant of the red chamber, but who proved himself to be a committed partisan of the Conservative cause on the ground, in small-town banquet halls and fundraising events.
Mike Duffy’s life as a senator was, in fact, born into drama. Until Dec. 22, 2008, Stephen Harper had mostly avoided appointing senators, but with the House of Commons prorogued so that his government could avoid a confidence vote, and with a coalition still threatening to defeat and replace the Conservatives, the Prime Minister filled 18 vacancies in a controversial gesture just before Christmas that year, each new senator apparently pledging to support the government’s Senate reforms. “Our government will continue to push for a more democratic, accountable and effective Senate,” the Prime Minister explained. “If Senate vacancies are to be filled, however, they should be filled by the government that Canadians elected rather than by a coalition that no one voted for.”
In that precarious moment, the famous television host became a parliamentarian, alongside, coincidentally, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. Questions about his residency quickly followed his appointment to represent Prince Edward Island—an early hint at the imbroglio to come—and Duffy almost immediately initiated controversy with the suggestion that Danny Williams, then premier of Newfoundland, and P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, had got “into bed together” over equalization payments and that Ghiz would be getting “the shaft” as a result. He made similar comments in his maiden speech in the Senate a few days later, but officially withdrew them. Harper later admitted that Duffy’s remarks were “perhaps inappropriate.” Seemingly undaunted, Duffy soon thereafter questioned Ghiz’s intelligence during a speech in Halifax. “Joe Ghiz knew what he was doing,” Duffy said of Robert Ghiz’s father, a former premier of P.E.I. “Joe Ghiz was a very smart guy and I’m afraid Robert—well anyway, I’ll just leave it at that.”
However controversial his first days as a senator were, he was a popular fundraiser for the Conservative party who travelled the country singing the praises of the government, spinning yarns and chiding the Conservatives’ rivals. “He was a huge name in Canadian politics as a journalist, one of the most recognizable names on the Hill,” says a Conservative source. “And his folksy style appealed to people, so when he became a Conservative, it was a no-brainer for constituency associations to try to get him to come to their events. People loved him on TV and now as a partisan, so he became a huge draw where people would come and listen to him tell stories about Ottawa, but now with the voice of a Conservative and not a journalist.”
Through the spring, summer and fall of 2009, newspaper reports and notices touted Duffy’s arrival—whether in Winona, Ont., or Kamloops, B.C.—for local Conservative fundraising events, with tickets ranging from $40 to $150 per person. He drew 200 people at the Ramada Inn in Belleville, Ont.—Conservative MP Daryl Kramp said he was happy to see that many came out on the same night as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals—and another 100 at the Delta Grand hotel in Kelowna, B.C. In March, he was billed as a coming attraction due to speak at the Golf and Banquet Centre in Langley, B.C. “We are so excited to have Sen. Duffy coming out to attend our fundraiser,” gushed the Langley riding association president in March 2009. “Who would have thought the ‘Duffinator’ and host of Mike Duffy Live would ever be in Langley? This is the can’t-miss political event in Langley this year.”
Bill Phillips, managing editor of the Prince George Free Press, sat at a head table with Duffy at a Conservative fundraiser in Prince George, B.C., in 2009. “For me, the disappointing part was that it was very much a party speech, and seeing him coming out of the media, I was kind of hoping for something more about his days on reporting,” says Phillips. “It was all about the Conservative party and fighting the good fight. It was a rally-the-troops kind of speech.” Nonetheless, he says Duffy was “engaging and entertaining.”
In June 2009, Duffy hosted a “town hall” meeting with the Prime Minister in Cambridge, Ont., to showcase the government’s “economic action plan” (the Liberal opposition having demanded regular progress reports as part of putting the government “on probation”). In 2009 and 2010, he assisted the by-election campaigns of Scott Armstrong and Julian Fantino and, in the 2011 election, he campaigned for 11 Conservative candidates in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories, according to the Ottawa Citizen. “I’ve been around so long . . . and you get a feeling, there’s something in the air when people are about to make a big move,” he told Conservatives at the opening of a local campaign office in Ottawa. “There are a lot of people who are quietly saying, ‘Enough of all this babble in the air and all of these phony scandals and all this other stuff. It’s time for a stable, national majority government.’ ”
At regular intervals, he seemed to make news for one reason or another. In November 2009, after the New Democrats questioned his expenses, he appeared on television and questioned NDP MP Peter Stoffer’s support for Canadian soldiers, calling Stoffer a “faker.” Four months later, he used a speech in Nova Scotia to suggest journalism schools were warping students’ minds with the writings of Noam Chomsky. And in November of last year, Duffy joined two other Conservative senators in proposing that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. form a Maritime union to aid the region’s economy.
All the while, Duffy, though not a particularly prolific speaker, managed to commit about 20,000 words to the Senate’s official record. He championed the Farm Improvement Loans Act and a private member’s bill, authored by Conservative MP Patricia Davidson, that sought to regulate the use of non-corrective contact lenses. He praised the government’s 2012 budget and fretted about the funding of environmental groups. “We need this budget for Canada’s economic future, and we need transparency among charities so that the bad apples do not undermine the credibility of the many, many thousands of great charities,” he said.
He saluted the memory of John A. Macdonald, brought attention to the plight of a political prisoner in Iran, expressed concern about infringements on freedom of speech in Canada and, in April 2012, commended those who fought as part of Bomber Command in the Second World War, including the father of Robert Fife, the CTV reporter who would go on to break the news that Harper’s then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had cut a secret deal with Duffy. “A tail gunner in one of those bombers was a man named Clyde Fife,” Duffy recalled. “I found out long after the war that Clyde Fife from northern Ontario had a son who is with us still, and who makes his presence felt still: Bob Fife.”
As a member of the Senate’s standing committee on agriculture and forestry, Duffy contributed to a report on the future of the forestry sector. “His contributions to the ag committee were great, I thought . . . he certainly made valuable contributions,” says Conservative Sen. Don Plett, who considers Duffy a friend. Liberal Sen. Terry Mercer, deputy chair of the committee, suggests otherwise, saying Duffy’s contributions were “not significant”; a CBC tally found that Duffy attended only 55 per cent of the meetings of the two committees to which he was assigned. (Plett says Duffy might have missed meetings because of medical appointments, while Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton says Duffy periodically filled in for colleagues on other committees.) Regardless, Duffy brought a certain celebrity status. “When I got sworn in at the Senate,” Plett recalls, “I had my parents here for that, and my mother told me later, ‘Don, I had my picture taken with Mike Duffy.’ ”
In his maiden speech to the Senate, Duffy sketched his career in journalism and on Parliament Hill, from the political giants he had watched and the battles he had covered to the mentors who had helped him. He claimed that a Senate sinecure was not something he had sought and, however enthusiastic he would prove to be as a public face and voice for the Conservatives, he said he had been hesitant to accept the posting. In June 2009, he went further, telling a reporter with the Peterborough Examiner that he originally wanted to sit as an independent senator. Four years later, he has his independence.
Blue represents a fundraising event. Purple represents a speech in the Senate. Red represents a campaign event. Yellow represents a party convention.
This map demonstrates just how far Duffy has travelled since his appointment to the Senate. Markers are divided by fundraising events (in red) and campaign stops (in white).