Wright and Duffy: the contrast in styles is vivid, but what about the rules?

John Geddes on the conflict of interest potential in a besieged senator’s $90,000 gift

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

It is tempting to frame the news that Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, took the extraordinary step of personally giving more than $90,000 to Mike Duffy, the senator from (ostensibly) Prince Edward Island, strictly in terms of the stark contrast between the two main characters.

The story—broken over at CTV by Robert Fife—has Wright giving Duffy a fat cheque to allow him to repay improperly claimed Senate housing allowances. The gift-giver could hardly be a more guardedly low-profile public office holder; the recipient is about the most outsized character in the Upper Chamber.

If Duffy’s fame as a longtime TV news personality, before his Senate appointment, was once a boon to the Conservatives, allowing him to serve as a party fundraising draw, that same notoriety now makes this unwelcome story that much bigger. And if Wright’s reticence was previously seen as an exemplary attribute in a Harper-era political aide, that same discretion might make him seem, in this new context, a rather shadowy figure.

But there aren’t just fascinating political personas in play here. There are rules. Specifically, The Conflict of Interest Code for Senators, which stipulates clearly that senators may not accept any gift “that could reasonably be considered to relate to the senator’s position.”  The sole, narrowly defined exception to that prohibition is for gifts “received as a normal expression of courtesy or protocol, or within the customary standards of hospitality.”

The code is a more technical framing device for the story. Wright’s gift of money to Duffy obviously “relates to the senator’s position,” and just as obviously doesn’t amount to “a normal expression of courtesy.” So is Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard looking into the matter? She won’t say.  In an email, Ricard’s office said she “cannot publicly comment on the individual circumstances of senators,” and nothing much else.

The besieged Duffy is unlikely to offer up a satisfying explanation for how he felt entitled to accept the gift. But might Wright feel obliged, given his influential position, to explain himself? After all, he is the most powerful political staffer in Ottawa, the key link between Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office and the senior staffs of his cabinet ministers.

The PMO reportedly says that Wright was motivated by his personal friendship with Duffy, and that Harper didn’t know about the unusual gift. Still, it seems unlikely the Prime Minister will be able to distance himself too far from the actions of his top adviser on such a significant issue of judgment, and one touching directly on an issue Harper has often made his own—Senate reform.

Almost all Canadians know Duffy from his long run as a TV news personality before Harper named him to the Senate. But Wright was a Toronto investment executive before Harper recruited him in 2010, highly regarded in his circles but unknown beyond them. Apart from appearing before a parliamentary committee at the outset, he has almost never been in the public eye, despite his lofty position in Ottawa.

There have been a few stories. Early this year, federal Ethics Commission Ethics Mary Dawson found that Wright had not violated the Conflict of Interest Act when he was lobbied, as reported by the Canadian Press, by Barrick Gold Corp., whose founder, Peter Munk and his son, Anthony Munk, are Wright’s close friends.

As well, Maclean’s reported last fall that Wright had been lobbied by representatives of the Canadian venture capital sector, which he worked in before taking his job with Harper and is expected to return to when he exits politics. Wright said that lobbying didn’t involve the “private interest” of his old company, Onex Corp., and so he had not violated any conflict of interest rules.

If nothing more, Wright’s evident links to powerful and wealthy business interests now add to the intrigue of his personal intervention in the Duffy saga. They make an unusual duo—offering plenty for opposition QP tacticians to work with. But this shouldn’t be merely about Question Period fireworks when the House resumes sitting after its break this week. This should be a moment to seriously test the rules and probe the assumptions that govern the actions of those lucky enough to be appointed by the Prime Minister to high office.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.