Always a car crash waiting to happen in Ottawa

By 
  • May 30, 2013

Political scandals, whether on Parliament Hill, city hall or elsewhere, are like car accidents: you don’t like to see them happen but it’s difficult to look away.

In recent weeks, political scandals have dominated media coverage in Canada, especially the Senate affair inspired by, among others, Senator Mike Duffy.

There is nothing new about scandal on Parliament Hill. And they are never limited to party affiliation. We can go all the way back to John A. Macdonald’s CPR bribery scandal up to recent times when Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet ministers flew nannies and children around on government jets, or Brian Mulroney’s tainted tuna and Jean Chretien’s sponsorship scandal. The only reason there hasn’t been an NDP scandal in Ottawa is because they haven’t held power. That party has proven its scandal mettle in provincial governments in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

Beyond the $92 million taxpayers spend on the Senate every year, what makes this latest scandal intriguing is the roster of players, particularly the former broadcaster Duffy and Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s now former chief of staff. Wright was “lent” to the government in 2010 by corporate titan Gerald Schwartz of Onex Corp. for an unspecified period of time.

On the surface, Duffy and Wright seem so different, but they will now be forever linked. “Insider whispers” and media proclamations say the Senate expenses scandal lead to the untimely resignation of Wright, who is described as highly intelligent and one of many who counts Pope John Paul II as a hero, though he is Anglican not Roman Catholic.

But what if there was nothing untimely at all about Wright’s resignation? What if the opportunity presented itself and he used it as his own planned “exit strategy” from the Parliament Hill pressure cooker to return to his high-powered corporate job, all the while trying to help the Prime Minister?

It seems like the only logical explanation why someone so smart would do such a foolish thing as write a $90,000 personal cheque to Duffy to cover his dubious expense claims that he charged taxpayers.

Besides his acumen and physical fitness, Wright’s abundant amounts of charitable work have been discussed in great detail since his involvement in the scandal began. Was he just being charitable in cutting that cheque? Seems unlikely, especially since Duffy was causing such embarrassment to Harper and the Conservative government. Would he have written such a cheque to a Liberal Senator?

Instead, he writes the cheque to Duffy and hopes the problem goes away. He calculates the probability that the truth comes out about the cheque and figures it is worth the risk. Even if it does come out, then he lets the crisis arc to fever pitch and he resigns, takes the fall and heads back to his maven-like corporate deal making.

As an added bonus, the public frenzy whips up about the unelected Senate. A new poll commissioned by the National Post finds one-third of Canadians want the Senate killed while another 37 per cent want major reform, such as elections. Less than 10 per cent of Canadians want the Senate to remain the same.

Oh, by the way, one of the Prime Minister’s hobby horses is Senate reform, something he has talked about for at least two decades.

So, as this Senate affair grows, in the background is the Supreme Court of Canada which is scheduled to hear arguments this fall about the constitutionality of proposed legislation from Harper’s government about Senate reform, perhaps even the abolishment of the Upper Chamber and whether it can be done.

So much is still to come on this story, from the ethics commissioner and auditor-general to Senate committee hearings, Supreme Court justices, even the RCMP. As they say in journalism, this story has legs.

But, even if he didn’t think through all the ramifications of writing that cheque, be sure that Wright was not foolish in the role in played.

He may have put himself in the passenger seat of this “political car crash,” but he likely had a plan on how to walk away from the accident.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@ abc.ca.)

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