A pox upon this unshakable, inexplicable Senate

Day 16: Donald Bayne takes an aggressive approach to cross-examining the former head of Senate finance
Le sénateur Mike Duffy au Sénat à Ottawa le 9 mai 2013. ANDRE FORGET/QMI

Mike Duffy

Unleash the termites. The rock-devouring variety that would lay waste to the place, spread against the walls and churn through them.

Send them to decapitate the pillars that raise the roofs over the red chamber, direct them to swarm over the limestone, crawl up the nostrils of the gargoyles, bore into the wooden armrests of the leather chairs. Have them consume the red carpet. Send a Pharaoh’s worth of institution-eaters to chew up and digest the chamber in toto. Just so long as we never hear of the Senate of Canada again. Ever. Not even once. Not in ghost stories at campfire, not in the scarier versions of our favourite fairy tales.

That is what two-and-a-half days of watching defence lawyer Donald Bayne cross-examine former head of Senate finance Nicole Proulx will leave you praying for, while battling the sweats, wondering to yourself what this unholy ordeal is penance for. And all of it while you marvel at the stamina of these two adamantine personalities.
Knocking each other again and again.

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Not to mention—let’s make a deal, and not mention it?—the days of interrogation that preceded this, first of the gentlemanly retired Senate law clerk Mark Audcent, then of human resources officer Sonia Makhlouf. In the annals of all the chronicles of the exploits of the lesser and lowest functionaries, skip the chamber that is red, ok?

The trees that gave their lives to the soaring pile of reporter’s notebooks daily filled with details of this particular inner sanctum will never again molt their leaves in autumn or participate in the magic of photosynthesis. The ink from the pens on these pages is spent, never to be decanted anew in the long plastic cylinders.

And all because Sen. Mike Duffy somehow got himself charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, so that we gather each day at Ottawa’s Elgin Street courthouse and learn of the unceasing machinations of a place that most of us, as Canadians, have already decided is not worth saving, revamping or caring about.

Then Bayne, Duffy’s lawyer, causes to flash upon the wall-mounted flat-screen TVs a spreadsheet, indicating the fact that the denizens of this Senate—senators, they’re called, like the toga-wearing Romans in Shakespeare, of whom Julius Caesar requests more “fat / Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights” (Caesar would have taken one look at our Senate and cried “Eureka!” but in Latin)—frequently spend nearly a million bucks a piece swanning around this country and beyond.

Between September 2010 and September 2013, Nick G. Sibbeston, a Jean Chrétien appointment, spent more than any other on travel ($988,114.49), but, since he’s a representative of the notoriously dear Northwest Territories, we probably ought to cut him some slack.

Fellow Chrétien appointee Terry Mercer, senator for Nova Scotia, charged us $968,877.76, while Saskatchewan senator (suspended) Pamela Wallin, like Duffy appointed by Stephen Harper, expensed $936,264.48 over the same period (Wallin has been the subject of an RCMP probe, though she remains clear of charges).

Bayne drew the court’s attention to the document so as to point out how Duffy was by no means a Senate big spender, but weighed in between the falls of 2010 and 2013 at a wholly reasonable (N.B. by Senate standards) $711,114.17 in travel, ranking at around 23rd or 24th, according to his lawyer. Apprised of this tidbit at his perch in the corner of the courtroom, Duffy maintained his signature courtroom pose: dignified, just this side of haughty, alert to the tidiest portion of minutia.

Proulx, who oversaw all this as head of finance directorate, appeared unimpressed by this development, and by all others today. That is how Bayne is scoring points against a woman who’s emerged here in court as the unshakable representative of Senate rectitude.

Too unshakable.

Bayne today adopted an aggressive, loud, steely approach to cross—steelier and louder than before—and pushed an increasingly brittle Proulx into holding firm on some untenable positions, related both to the fulsomeness of Senate expense policies and the state of Senate oversight at the time Duffy remained a senator in good standing for Prince Edward Island.

When Proulx made mention of an internal policy prohibiting senators from engaging in fundraising activities benefiting a political party—part of a discussion Bayne has opened on how Senate rules and regulations expressly state that Senate resources should be available for partisan activities—Bayne wanted to know where this was written.

“Well, it doesn’t say that in the [Senate Administrative Rules],” Bayne boomed at Proulx. “Where does it say that? Show us! I want you to show us some evidence.”

Proulx responded by digging up rules related to the Miscellaneous Expenditures Account, then saying that although they narrowly dictated how an arcane budget of $5,000 ought to be handled, the spirit of that edict remained in force beyond that scope, too.

“Where is it written down that there are other limits?” Bayne asked elsewhere, this time on the topic of expensing travel connected to partisan activities. “Where is it set out what the limits are?

“You see, there’s a man on criminal trial for his liberty!” he barked.

It wasn’t just Bayne’s tone of voice that forced this point.

The documentary evidence he presented supported a view that Senate officials themselves were muddling through.

“Okay, we don’t need to be informed why travel to a primary residence occurs,” one functionary scrawled across a Duffy travel expense claim that outlined how he was undertaking a trip to P.E.I. in order to prepare to open a cottage for the season. Never mind that this “primary residence” was a cottage, which court has already heard sat shuttered for much of the year, and that it was well-known Duffy had already spent most of his adult life living not in Cavendish, P.E.I., but in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. “A trip between Ottawa and the primary residence of a senator does not need to be justified to be reimbursed,” the official continued helpfully.

Duffy is on criminal trial, in part for claiming travel expenses while living in Ottawa as a senator parachuted—theoretically, at least—into the national capital out of Prince Edward Island.

No matter the onslaught, Proulx stuck to her position. She met Bayne’s steeliness with a spine of the same and, again, it was that unwillingness to dilute her convictions about the way the Senate admin handled itself that could occasionally undermine her credibility as a witness. It made her seem like an ideologue, someone convinced the world works the way she apprehends it ought to, that it corresponds with the design she sees in her head—instead of a messy place with people like Duffy in it.

“I’m not talking about some undefined intention floating in the background,” is how Bayne responded to yet another such appeal, and the precision captured the moment.

Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial