The Commons: How do you solve a problem like Mike Duffy?

You'd be surprised what adjusting riding boundaries can accomplish

The NDP leader had asked a straightforward question and the Prime Minister had not quite responded with a straightforward answer and so now Thomas Mulcair, the NDP leader forced to gesture demonstratively this day with only his left arm on account of a fall on his right arm this morning, leaned forward and stared down the Prime Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians deserve a straight answer,” he ventured. “Did the Prime Minister know his party was behind these fraudulent calls, yes or no?

The New Democrats applauded their man’s strict advisement of the options.

“The independence of the Canadian Electoral Boundaries Commission is fundamental to our democracy,” Mr. Mulcair continued. “Conservatives paid for fraudulent robocalls using a fake company name to misinform voters and manipulate an important part of our democratic system. Worse yet, Conservative Party officials lied to Canadians to try to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Who will the Prime Minister hold accountable for this fraud?”

Alas, Mr. Harper was unimpressed with Mr. Mulcair’s presentation.

“Mr. Speaker, clearly I reject the accusations in that question,” the Prime Minister clarified. “I think the party has explained this particular matter. As I think the Speaker knows very well, there are electoral commissions in effect to redraw boundaries. Those commissions accept and expect input from parliamentarians, from political parties and from the general public. In Saskatchewan there has been overwhelming opposition to the particular proposals, but we are simply operating within the process as it exists.”

Unbowed by Mr. Mulcair’s experience, Bob Rae tried his own simple question. “Mr. Speaker, in light of the unprecedented effort by the Conservative Party, I presume the government, to gerrymander the riding boundaries in Saskatchewan, I wonder if the Prime Minister would give us a categorical assurance, today, that there will be no special partisan legislation, with respect to this matter but, rather, the government will ensure and guarantee that it will bring in a law that would be entirely compatible with the final conclusions of the boundary commission in Saskatchewan and, indeed, right across the country.”

In this case, Mr. Harper was willing to offer such an assurance. Eventually.

“Mr. Speaker, let me be, once again, clear on the process,” Mr. Harper graciously offered. “Under the law, independent boundary commissions are established. Part of the process, is to get widespread input, not just from parliamentarians and political parties, but from the general public. In the case of Saskatchewan, I am told that some 75% of the submissions made to that commission have been opposed to the current proposals. However, it is the commission that makes the decisions.”

So it is for the commission to decide, but it is apparently for the Conservative party to use that figure of 75% as justification for waging a public political campaign against the commission.

“Some years ago,” the Prime Minister continued, “the Liberals tried to bring in partisan legislation to overturn boundary commission recommendations. We would never do that.”

So the Conservatives will most certainly not do anything to overrule the independent commission, but they will presumably continue to wage a campaign against its conclusions.

“The process allows and encourages the public to make submissions. At the end of the day the commission will make the decision,” Gerry Ritz later explained to the House. “Seventy-five per cent of the submissions they received during the initial process were in favour of boundaries remaining the way they were. We stand with Saskatchewan residents in asking that the commission re-evaluate the work it did and re-establish the boundaries as they have been.”

And surely the Conservative party has only the public interest in mind in maintaining the boundaries that helped the party win 93% of the province’s seats in 2011 with 56% of the popular vote. (No doubt they’ve not even noticed that the new boundaries are slightly more favourable to the New Democrats.)

In the midst of this debate, the New Democrats raised another matter of geography. Specifically, the question of Senator Mike Duffy’s primary place of residence.

“Let us talk about Senator Come-From-Away, Mike Duffy, who hits up the taxpayer for $41,000 claiming to live in P.E.I. Then he is an Ontario voter. Then he tries to scam a health card and is turned down. He does not even qualify for the income tax reduction on residency. When was the last time he even mentioned in the Senate the great people of Prince Edward Island?” Charlie Angus wondered aloud, his brow furrowed in mock confusion. “It has to be at least seven months, which is why the people of Cavendish call him ‘Mike Who?’ ”

Obviously the people of Cavendish, those ill-mannered barbarians, should be more respectful and refer to him as Senator Who?

“Instead of trying to defend their buddy,” Mr. Angus finally asked, “will the Conservatives try defending the taxpayer and get $41,000 back from this guy?

The New Democrats stood to applaud this request.

Government House leader Peter Van Loan had the duty of taking this one. “Mr. Speaker, as has been said many times in this chamber, all parliamentarians are expected to maintain a residence both in their home region and here in the national capital region,” he offered.

It will no doubt surprise Mr. Van Loan to learn that the Constitution requires senators to be a resident of the province they claim to represent.

“The Senate is, as we know,” Mr. Van Loan continued, “doing a review of their current rules and ensuring they are properly applied to all senators.”

If Senator Duffy is found to be insufficiently associated with Prince Edward Island, the Conservatives will be put in a difficult spot. Do they ask him to resign? Do they order him to move? Before doing anything rash, they should consider what might be accomplished with a few robocalls. Appeal to the public to pressure the Ontario and PEI  boundary commissions to make Kanata part of Prince Edward Island. Squeeze the Ottawa suburb (where Senator Duffy reportedly often resides) into one of PEI’s ridings or make it a new riding altogether. Either way, problem solved: the little island gets to keep its senator. And if redrawing the boundaries improves the Conservative party’s seemingly dismal chances in PEI for 2015, all the better.