Say what you will about the Senate expense scandal—how federal politics has rarely felt more seedy or less connected to the nation’s pressing problems—the oratory has been uncommonly entertaining. More than that, though, this story has been propelled during the past 15 days mainly by the verbal energy and the real revelations contained in a series of speeches.
It’s worth considering the contrast: most political stories these days subsist on the dry fodder of documents, off-the-record comments, news releases, and incremental changes in talking points. This one went off like a string of firecrackers, all of which popped the floor of the Senate.
Here are some of the key moments:
Oct. 22 Sen. Claude Carignan, the Conservative leader in the Senate, made the case for suspending senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. Anticipating the complaint that the suspensions would preempt RCMP investigations into the senators’ disputed expense claims, Carignan declared, “I never claimed and I never will claim that I am going to show or insinuate that Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau committed a criminal act.” But he went on to argue that their expense violations “are of such magnitude and were committed with such a degree of repeated carelessness and such frequency that they undermined the integrity of the institution.” His closing pitch: “We cannot ask Canadians to respect our institution if we do not respect it ourselves.”
Oct. 22 But on the same day Carignan set out the articles of indictment, Duffy rose and spoke with such vaudevillian flare that he dominated the day’s news coverage. Duffy described a key Feb. 13 meeting he had with Stephen Harper and Nigel Wright, then the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. “I said that despite the smear in the papers, I had not broken the rules, but the prime minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth. It’s not about what you did—it’s about the perception of what you did that has been created in the media.” This became the leitmotif of Duffy’s case: that he was duped into playing his part in a damage-control exercise orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s Office, which has unfairly led him to the brink of being kicked out of the upper chamber.
Oct. 23 With a tough act to follow, Pamela Wallin spoke the following day, offering her practiced poise in contrast to Duffy’s folksy showmanship. She argued that two Tory senators, Caroline Stewart Olsen and Marjory LeBreton, were motivated by envy over Wallin’s growing prominence. Like Duffy, though, she pinned the blame mainly on the Prime Minister’s Office. “If, as I suspect, Senator Carignan is taking direction from the PMO, then this process is not in the interests of an independent, functioning and effective Senate – although it is most clearly in the interests of those who want to abolish this chamber,” she said. Indeed, the controversy has made abolition, rather than Harper’s official aim reforming the Senate, a respectable public position for some Tories to take—even for senior figures like Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. And Wallin framed the rush to suspend in the more immediate terms of the fall political calendar: “It’s also designed to appease the party faithful before the Conservative party convention at the end of the month.”
Oct. 24 An unexpected twist in the narrative came when Senator Don Plett, a former Conservative party president, rose to oppose Carignan. “I understand the desire to have a fresh start in the Senate, a clean slate,” Plett said. “The problem here is that we are trying to oversimplify a complex issue with a quick fix at the expense of three individuals, before giving them the opportunity to defend themselves and before we have had the opportunity to examine all of the facts of the respective cases.” This was a blow to Harper’s strategy. Although he’s hardly a nationally known figure, Plett’s word carries weight among core Conservatives. A Manitoba plumbing supply store owner, he embodies the self-image of the Conservative base. And he played that card audaciously, reminiscing about his father introducing him to politics as a mere boy. “He was a Conservative all his life,” Plett said. “But first and foremost, he was a man of ethics and integrity. He taught me not to let politics get in the way of doing the right thing.”
Oct. 29 It was Duffy redux that got the story off to a start again last week. He opened by intoning that he had been undergoing cardiac tests and his doctors had warned him “to stay away” from the Senate. Then he elaborated on his earlier themes. “The PM knew I wasn’t guilty. Nigel Wright knew I wasn’t guilty. The Senate leadership knew I wasn’t guilty.” His new evidence: the Conservative party had paid Duffy’s $13,560 lawyer’s bill, for legal help he got for something to do with the questions surrounding his expenses, although exactly what work isn’t yet clear. In response, all Harper could muster was a dry statement that all parties occasionally cover the legal costs of their MPs and senators. True enough. But why pay Duffy’s bills if he was in the wrong? Duffy’s answer: “It wasn’t about ethics. It was all about politics…”
Nov. 4 And finally, on the eve of today’s expected Senate vote on the suspensions, Brazeau, sometimes the forgotten player in this drama, took perhaps his last big chance to speak. Without Duffy’s standup timing or Wallin’s wounded pride, Brazeau tone of bitter disillusionment was gripping enough. He called the move to suspend him “a shameless farce, a show trial, a gong show the likes of which has never been seen in Canadian history.” He claimed the residency rules he’s accused of breaking to make illegitimate housing claims were never clear. “Senate housing policy is still missing basic definitions,” he said. “Good policy always begins with defining its terms properly.” In an extraordinary moment, the former leader of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said, “It is very important that you know that I am not a thief, a scammer, a drunken Indian, a drug addict, a failed experiment or a human tragedy.”