A huckster, an ideologue and a stickler walk into a world of trouble. It’s no joke. It’s one way to understand three of the characters involved in the uproar over Nigel Wright’s personal cheque to Sen. Mike Duffy.
Two of the characters will be familiar to most readers. Duffy is the huckster. He used to be on TV; during station breaks he would advertise his eagerness to be a senator for so many years that it was a standing Ottawa joke. Finally Stephen Harper put him in what we laughingly call the upper chamber of Parliament, where Duff was put to work shooting fundraising videos and pretending to interview the Prime Minister at Conservative party fundraising picnics. Duffy used to protest his non-partisanship, and when he fetched up in the Conservative Senate benches we all had a good laugh, but in the end it turned out to be true. Partisans have loyalty. In the crunch, Duffy had only interests.
Nigel Wright is the ideologue. Already we have strayed into unfamiliar territory because most popular depictions of Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff treated him as a Bay Street ascetic who understood only deals, management skills and long-distance running. When he went into Harper’s PMO in 2010, it was said he would bring a sense of rationality to the place. Cartesian rigour. Less partisanship. This is the kind of notion people in my line of work sometimes just make right up out of nothing, because Wright had been an ardent and active Conservative donor, organizer and volunteer in his spare time for many years. Some men stay above the fray. Wright had always been in it to ensure Conservatives won.
Chris Montgomery is the stickler. He is new to us. His name was not widely known until it appeared in an RCMP document laying out the police force’s evidence in the Wright-Duffy affair. Montgomery worked as director of parliamentary affairs in Sen. Marjory LeBreton’s office. In the police document, which is a rollicking read, he keeps spoiling the plans concocted by Wright and others to deal with Duffy’s disputed expenses. He accomplishes this by reminding the others of the rules. They do not like to be reminded of the rules.
“Chris simply does not believe in our goal of circling the wagons,” Wright complained in one email. “Because of this lack of buy in, it was impossible to discuss meaningfully the parliamentary strategy.”
Much of the RCMP’s case has to do with a Senate committee report that was going to say unflattering things about Duffy. The report was amended to say less unflattering things, in hopes Duffy would settle his affairs and stop making trouble. The author of the RCMP document, Cpl. Greg Horton, writes that Montgomery “gave advice to senators (Carolyn) Stewart Olsen and (David) Tkachuk not to amend the report, as they had an obligation to the Senate to give a rationale for having reclaimed the money from Duffy,” wrote Horton.
When he wasn’t reminding senators of their obligation to the Senate, Montgomery was reminding Harper’s office not to try to influence the Senate.
“He advised the PMO . . . that they should not be involved in the Senate audit and reports regarding Sen. Duffy,” Horton wrote.
Patrick Rogers, who was in charge of Senate wrangling in the PMO, wrote in effect, on many occasions: Would you get a load of this guy Montgomery? “I am in a meeting with Montgomery, LeBreton [and others]” Rogers wrote to Wright. “This is epic. Montgomery is the Problem.”
At some point Rogers persuaded Montgomery to pipe down. “We’re done, Patrick made it happen,” another PMO staffer, Chris Woodcock, wrote.
We are born to divide the world into heroes and villains, but let us resist the temptation. In Duffy, Wright and Montgomery we have an equilateral triangle of mutual incomprehension. Duffy was doing what he had watched senators do for most of his adult life. He had bills to pay. When he submitted his expenses, nobody told him “no.” Well, that’s not true. But when he submitted his expenses and was told “no,” nobody told him he couldn’t try again.
Wright found him incomprehensible. Wright is rich. He paid his own bills, even when he had legitimate expenses to claim. “He estimates he (is) out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars,” Cpl. Horton writes, “but it is his global view and contribution to public policy that taxpayers not bear the cost of his position if he can legitimately afford to fund it himself,” the RCMP officer wrote.
At one point Horton notes that Wright had paid his own legal bills, on an unrelated matter of government business, to the tune of $60,000 from his own pocket. When he started thinking of paying Duffy’s bill the same way, somebody suggested he simply file a claim for his own expense to cover most of Duffy’s. Wright dismissed the notion.
In this, Wright is different only in scale from the Prime Minister. Stephen Harper does not submit expenses for working lunches, at which he does not eat lavishly, because he would have eaten anyway.
All year long people have been asking why Wright would pay that kind of money to Duffy, of all people. It’s the wrong question. He meant no favour to Duffy, whom he found loathsome for a simple reason: Duffy expensed his meals. In his residence, which as everyone knows is in an Ottawa suburb. Charged them as a travel expense. “I am beyond furious,” Wright wrote. “This will all be repaid.” As grammarians know, you can hide a lot in a passive verb.
Wright wished only that Duffy would go away. “Chinese water torture,” he called the Duffy headlines in one email. He needed to “stop our public agony.” Even if it meant using private means.
Montgomery? He is a former Alberta Conservative who has gone home to work for oil companies. While in Ottawa, he urged everyone to follow Ottawa rules. His interest was form and propriety. Wright’s was the well-being of a political movement. Duffy’s was Mike Duffy. Three strangers, caught in a storm.