Published in the Telegraph-Journal 24th May 2013
On Parliament Hill, yet another day has come and gone in which the Duffy affair has brought new questions but no new answers. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that the scandal is another example of how little politics is about accountability. After searching for the right script, the government finally established its official story: the Prime Minister knew nothing of the payment to Mr. Duffy until he heard it on CTV News.
After declaring how annoyed he was by how the matter had been handled by Mr. Duffy and his former chief-of-staff, Mr. Harper said that the appropriate mechanisms of government would be invoked to manage the details of the issue.
According to a statement from the Conservative-controlled Senate conflict of interest committee, because the case is now with the ethics commissioner, it will now be necessary to wait for the committee’s report. So the unfortunate matter was regrettable but it is being investigated by the appropriate authorities. There was no more for the Prime Minister to do.
“That is the reality and we’ve dealt with it promptly,” Mr. Harper said.
The Senate itself appears in no hurry to apply additional accountability to itself. Appointed by Mulroney to the Senate in 1993, Marjory LeBreton, Leader of the Government in the Senate stated that the Conservative government had been victimized by its objectives to reform the Senate over the last seven years.
“The reality is that we are facing this crisis because we flung open the door and revealed what was going on and now rather than being credited for doing so, we are paying the price for taking this important and necessary step,” Ms LaBreton said.
The Senate ethics officer may indeed review the case, but that will not let the government off the hook. Even though the Senate’s Committee on Internal Economy will once again review Mr. Duffy’s expenses, there is every likelihood that, in the absence of a concerted effort by the government, this case will eventually die the entropic death of most matters that do not appear on Mr. Harper‘s agenda.
Government has enough difficulties forging a consensus on economic or social policy without having to face the political debate that will arise over this controversy in Mr. Harper’s administration. Canada is faced with unprecedented fiscal challenges that have shaken the foundation of economies in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Weak government has less flexibility and credibility to undertake the transformational measures required to balance the books. Without strong measures, ensuring prosperity for Canadians will be significantly more challenging.
An inability to introduce new public policy is not the only implication of a loss of support for government action. The trust of Canadians in government eventually will evaporate, especially with abuse of power as demonstrated by the Senate expenses scandal. Taxpayers who are outraged by the unethical behaviour of politicians will eventually prefer to have less government.
Mr. Harper has, since his first election claimed that, for Canada to remain globally competitive, major reforms to public policy will be necessary over coming years. Many of these reforms will involve controversy, regardless of which leader or political party is at the helm when those reforms are introduced. Public support will be critical to achieving these reforms. This public support requires trust, that ineluctable element that increasingly is what is missing in Canadian politics at all levels.
The real problem is that patronage is deeply entrenched in Canadian politics and it will take more than this scandal to dislodge it. From the standpoint of the public, the behaviour of politicians looks like political corruption. But from the standpoint of the traditional political system, politicians are simply doing what politicians have always done. Patronage is deeply embedded in Canadian political culture. The challenge will be to face this fact squarely. We are far from that reality today.