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Duffy’s return puts Senate faults back in the spotlight

Thirty-one charges dismissed in court late last month, Mike Duffy was back in his Senate seat this week. Perhaps more importantly to him, he was back on the public payroll – senators will be paid $145,400 this year.

Money has been central to Duffy’s tenure in the Red Chamber. Since his 2008 appointment by former prime minister Stephen Harper, Duffy was a ceaseless promoter and fundraiser for the Conservatives, parlaying his fame and contacts as a television journalist into cash for the party coffers.

Money was also central in the scandals Duffy became embroiled in, from questionable expense claims – his primary residence in PEI vs. his longtime home in Ottawa, his per diems and meals, valid Senate expenses vs. Conservative party partisanship – to the notable $90,000 payment from Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright.

In the same vein, we’ll be watching to see if there’s any effort to reimburse Duffy for some $270,000 in lost wages since he was suspended from the Senate in late-2013. Though the criminal charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery against the senator were dismissed, the Conservatives could maintain the suspension predated the charges, and was related to Duffy’s conduct.

The ruling by Ontario Court Justice Charles Vaillancourt upheld Duffy’s contention that he had done nothing wrong, that his housing claims and the Wright repayment were forced on him by the party. Duffy’s trial was most notable for shining a light on the sordid goings-on of a government that claimed to be all about transparency and honesty yet acted in exactly the opposite manner.

Canadians were treated, if that’s the right word, to revelations of the grubby power-mongering in the PMO, which seemed to trump Duffy’s misdeeds.

At this point, the focus moves to Senate reform, the kind introduced by Justin Trudeau perhaps in reaction to the woeful example set by Duffy and his colleagues Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.

While calls for the abolition of the Senate increased as the news became more tawdry, that idea was and is something of a nonstarter. In opposition, Trudeau did away with party affiliation, though changes have been slow to come.

Scandals and lack of effectiveness aside, it costs Canadians something in the area of $95 million a year to keep the 105 senators in the lifestyle to which they’re accustomed.

Aside from being undemocratic, unaccountable, illegitimate and unnecessary, the Senate is stacked with people who clearly aren’t required to show ethical behaviour, let alone acting as a sober second thought.

The  Senate Ethics Officer has been the opposite of effective, in part due to a lack of independence. Rather, the office is under the control of a committee of senators. Still, violations of Senate ethics rules are not penalized in any way, and the rules do not require senators to be honest, and allow senators to make decisions even if they have a financial interest in the outcome (as long as the decision applies generally to a broad group of people or organizations). Moreover, conflicts of interest that senators have are not made public unless a senate committee approves it; senators can accept the gift of unlimited travel, even from lobbyists; and senators may sit on the boards of businesses and so they can be essentially inside-government lobbyists for those businesses.

Mike Duffy may be the poster child for what’s wrong with the Senate, but he’s not an isolated example.

Changes, if not outright abolition, are clearly needed.

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