Why Mike Duffy and the Senate are the least of our concerns

Colby Cosh on election fraud, voter suppression and robocalls

Why the senate is the least of our concerns

Patrick Doyle/CP

I’m starting to half-believe the theory that the Senate expense scandal was cooked up to cover other problems for the Conservative Party of Canada. The broad main effect of the Senate fracas so far has been to exasperate the hell out of everybody. Mike Duffy’s bad behaviour presents the public with the frustrating conundrum that only the Senate can make rules for or punish errant senators, and that the major features of the Constitution (including that one) are probably immune from formal amendment for the next hundred years or so. Stephen Harper’s statutory end-run proposals for permitting Senate elections and tightening term limits are currently awaiting scrutiny by the Supreme Court; if the court rejects his measures, he can argue that they represented at least a fillip of attainable accountability, which they do, and that it is not his fault they were bounced.

In modern history, providing convenient excuses for inaction by elected politicians is about 45 per cent of the court’s function. And, at that, maybe it is okay to notice that the court, now crowded with Harper appointees, is as much an audience for Duffy’s antics as the rest of us. On top of all this, the whole mess invited Justin Trudeau, following cues like a good drama teacher, to plunge headlong into the trap of not only defending the Senate, but defending it on the specific grounds that Quebec is beneficially overrepresented therein.

If people are pulling faces at the Senate, that’s a win for the Conservative party. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a boost for the New Democrats, who have a clear “dynamite it” position on the Senate that they have advocated pretty consistently for half a century. Keeping the seat counts of the NDP and the Liberals roughly level with each other is the paramount strategic axiom for the Tories from now until (at least) 2015.

And what did it cost the Prime Minister? The services of chief of staff Nigel Wright, legendary Kato to Harper’s Green Hornet? Let’s accept the narrative that prevails within a five-kilometre radius of Parliament Hill, and stipulate that Wright is a world-historical genius in jogging pants: just how sure are we that he wasn’t ready to return to private life anyway? Assuming he was going to stop babysitting the Prime Minister’s Office at some point, you cannot say the PM did not squeeze the maximum political benefit out of his exit. Meanwhile, his replacement is Ray Novak, who is practically a son to Harper, who doesn’t have Wright’s non-political options, and who gets to take on one of the five or six most important jobs in Ottawa at the tender age of 35. It’s an emergency, folks! There was no other choice!

By all means, though, let’s keep talking about a “scandal” involving senatorial expenses, even though Duffy and the other impugned senators, leaving aside procedural rights and wrongs, do not really spend any more than their colleagues overall. (Conservative senators do not cost any more or less than Liberal ones in general, either.) The Senate costs about what it costs, and we’re stuck with it: as a wise old maxim holds, “If there’s no solution, there’s no problem.” But while we are relishing all this Duffstuff, the Federal Court’s ruling on Conservative “robocalls” in the 2011 election is an open sore, weeping steadily into the political environment.

The Federal Court refused to overturn any election results from 2011 because the onus of proof was on the plaintiffs to prove that an actual outcome was altered. And the plaintiffs, quite honestly, did a sorry job of this. But the court did affirm that election fraud had taken place, fraud almost certainly perpetrated by someone having access to the Conservative CIMS (Constituent Information Management System) database. Moreover, Justice Richard Mosley castigated the Conservative MPs defending the suit for attempting to “block these proceedings by any means” and making “transparent attempts to derail this case.” He actually used the phrase “trench warfare” to characterize their attitude.

The Tories don’t seem too worried that CIMS has been compromised, which would be their single worst election-readiness nightmare not involving an alien attack or dirty bombs. They are not even pretending to tell us how they intend to guarantee that this sort of election fraud will never happen again. The general attitude of their defenders outside caucus seems to be, “Ha ha, we introduced a horrifying dirty-tricks virus into Canadian politics and got away with it.” But, sure: ain’t that Senate terrible?

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at