The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Rick Anderson, Anne McGrath and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

Anne McGrath:

It's been a terrible week in politics for many reasons but perhaps the top of mind story across the country has been the Senate scandal and all the corollaries. The Prime Minister had an opportunity to make a clear statement Tuesday acknowledging responsibility, apologizing and revealing the details of the mess, but he failed to do so. Probably not surprising that I was disappointed but perhaps more importantly, his Conservative Caucus and his base were probably even more disappointed. This is a story that cannot end well for the government.  


Rick Anderson: 

And here I was, just about to say, "welcome back, Anne!"  I thought we had missed you. (Actually, we did, and welcome back.) Where to begin on this matter...first, contrary to the repeated assertions of the opposition parties and most of the media, the government does indeed recognize the seriousness of this issue. You don't lose three Senators from your caucus, and your chief of staff, over inconsequential things....

As the PM said this morning - and as many in his party are acutely aware - this all goes to the heart of the platform on which he and the government have been elected. Second, he can't just acknowledge "responsibility" for the mess, for the initial deeds are not his, they are acts of individual Senators with which - again as the PM said this morning - the Senate as a whole must address.

Contrary to most of our misplaced thinking in this country, the Senate and the House are actually not supposed to function as an arm of the executive branch, e.g., the PMO (opportunity here for some kickback, I admit). The PM made it clear this morning that he expects his government leader in the Senate and other Senators to make sure their rules are clear - and that they are enforced.

I expect that may well lead to the departure of one or more Senators, if it turns out that rules have been materially violated, but that is for the Senate to determine.


Richard Mahoney:

The three of us, and ONW's Sue Kelley, have been in and around politics for, ahem, some time. It is sometimes tempting to think you have seen it all before. But I think it is fair to say that we were all a bit shocked by the events of last week. Shocked that the most senior official in the PMO would have done what he did. And surprised at what that means for the government - as Anne says, it can't end well. There are likely going to be legal and political consequences to these events that go beyond the resignations of the last week. The Prime Minister has made a virtue in the past of never admitting responsibility, and blaming ethical and other shortcomings on others. That instinct now works against his, and his government's, interest. He will need to do better.


Anne McGrath:

It doesn't work to argue distance between the government and the Senate. The Senators on the government side are appointed by the Prime Minister and operate to promote the government's agenda. These recent events are an admittedly spectacular example of all that is wrong with the current system.

For those of us, and I count all on this panel in this category, who still believe in good government, this whole mess is mostly depressing and disheartening. And so far, there has been little acknowledgement of the depth of the scandal and the impact on public trust.


Rick Anderson:

I agree that the whole mess is depressing and disheartening. I really don't know very many people who don't see it that way. The Senate has been a comfy little enclave for many many years. There are many good people in it but it's a badly designed institution, mostly left to its own little semi-relevant backwater. Which leads to this.

If any good at all can come of this - and that is hard to see - it is that it might provide some more energy to the matter of either reforming and democratizing the Senate, or abolishing it. The status quo is so clearly wrong.

I also agree, Anne, that "it doesn't work to argue distance between the government and the Senate" - at least not politically. But legally, as we all know here, the PM cannot just fire a Senators; in fact it is not even clear that the Senate as a whole has that power.

I expect we may well test that in this case, if the facts at the end of the day are as they are seem to be right now, or more of the individuals unhappily caught up in this could end up with the distinction of being the first Canadian in history to be removed from the Senate.

Maybe that will lead to preemptive resignations, as it has the other times that prospect loomed. But this too should be fixed. It is not acceptable for members of a legislative body to feel they are completely beyond the reach of any kind of accountability to the citizens of the country. I know most senators do not feel that way, so i think something is changing here.


Richard Mahoney:

Senate reform would be great, and maybe we will see some new resolve on that. Rick makes the point that the PM and his caucus know that this issue goes to the heart of their promises of accountability when first elected in 2006. People who break the rules will be punished, they said. Apparently, not if you are Mike Duffy, though. The only way that Mr. Harper can claim some high ground on this is to call an inquiry. He then can say, "we are getting to the bottom of this so that it doesn't happen again."

I am not holding my breath that that will happen, as Mr. Harper seems to loathe doing that, and he thought that particular trait - taking responsibility - was one of his predecessor's weaknesses. But he, and his government, may not get out from under this morass without an inquiry.


Anne McGrath:

I agree with both of you that this whole mess may actually, finally, propel some action for serious reform or, even better, abolition efforts. And I certainly agree with Richard's call for an inquiry/investigation. I think that average Canadians can't help but wonder what's next, and an independent, non-partisan investigation could help. I think it would also be helpful to the government and indicate a genuine desire to deal with it. Certainly as more and more details emerge about the $90,000 cheque written by Mr. Harper's former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, to cover Mike Duffy's dubious expenses, it seems that there is much more to learn. I count myself among those who have been admirers of Nigel Wright as the PM's COS and find the events of the past few days to have been stunning. It defies reason to believe that there isn't much more here than meets the eye. This could only have happened because damage control was the dominant consideration and the cheque alone is worthy of a serious investigation. Thankfully journalists are doing an excellent job uncovering additional details but an independent investigation is essential.


Rick Anderson:

Certainly, the entire matter deserves a bona fide examination with the level of thoroughness and transparency and objectivity needed to assure the Canadian public that their interests are being served. Normal House and Senate processes are freighted with partisanship. Judicial inquiries take forever; they can be better at deferring accountability than delivering it. A police investigation is by its nature not terribly transparent, at least not unless it leads to public charges. I hope for the benefit of the public interest and private reputations that we do succeed in finding a way to get to the bottom of this.

 I see five separate questions to which the public deserves an answer:

1. Are the Senate's rules about residency, travel and housing allowances clear? Deloitte says no; see section two:

2. Are the Senate's rules being properly enforced?

3. Did any Senator break those rules in a manner sufficient to warrant involuntary removal?

4. Did any officials of the government attempt to prevent answers to these questions from becoming known? (I sure hope not.) And

5. If so, who knew about that?

If we find a way to lessen the vitriol and get to the bottom of those questions, the public and the country will have been well served.


Richard Mahoney:

All good questions, and there are many other questions that will have to be answered. One of the most troubling is contained in a CTV story saying that the agreement "called for Duffy to publicly declare that he would repay the money. In return, sources say, Wright would give a personal cheque to Duffy to cover the $90,000. Sources say the agreement also stipulated that a Senate investigation into expense claims would go easy on Duffy."

If there was a promise of an investigation going easy, this is even more serious than it currently appears.

An inquiry is the way to go. You can call it early and take the heat. Or you can be hounded about it for two years and finally give in. Those are two models of behaviour. Mr. Harper has to choose one.

You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:

Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson

Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne

Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney

About The Salon (Anderson, Mcgrath, Mahoney)

Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Posted date : May 22, 2013

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