Ah, political scandals! Some splash up noisily, like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Others slosh and churn, and slosh and churn…like (suspended) Canadian Senator Mike Duffy.
Most likely you’ve heard about the Ford hullabaloo, in which the mayor of boring old Canada’s biggest city becomes fodder for headlines and late night comedians as he wages a very public battle with substance abuse.
The Mike Duffy scandal doesn’t summarize as easily. It’s so big, so flamboyant that it rates full treatment, such as this “The Rise and Fall of Mike Duffy” feature by the CBC’s Fifth Estate, which is sort of like Canada’s “60 Minutes”.
The short version might go like this: scrappy little guy makes it big as a news media star, attains a long-held dream of becoming a high-profile Senator, only to suffer public humiliation and sharp party abandonment when questionable expense account claims become a national scandal.
Many political observers say the context of this scandal threatened to destabilize Canada’s current ruling government and can still hurt (defeat?) the Conservatives in the next federal election, currently slated for 2015. Especially now that Sen. Duffy has been formally charged with 31 offenses that include fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
As mentioned, Mike Duffy began life as a regular guy, from Prince Edward Island. He moved away and built a long upwardly-mobile career, including many years as a prominent member of the news media in Ottawa. He was eventually appointed to the Canadian Senate, to represent PEI. As Senator, Duffy traveled extensively, using his star power to raise money for his party.
The trouble came when pesky reporters wondered aloud if Sen. Duffy was legitimately entitled to standard expenses for housing, travel and such. (Hadn’t he been living and working in Ottawa for, well, decades?) While Sen. Duffy and his wife do own a cottage on PEI, and are using it this week, it wasn’t very hard to prove he lacked usual PEI residency documents, such as a provincial health card or driver’s license.
The Senate expense account issue snowballed into something so big it’s far from over yet. That scandal included other Senators too, but Sen. Duffy’s case has been the most explosive (so far).
Indeed, what some are calling the Tory’s biggest ethical challenge could end up becoming a “tipping point” for the general electorate, when this all goes to trial next September, according to National Post political columnist John Ivison. (Duffy has promised he won’t go down without a fight that could include revelations that many in high places would rather not discuss.)
Will sitting Prime Minister Stephen Harper have to testify under oath about how and why his then-chief of staff Nigel Wright wrote a check for $90,000 to Senator Duffy, to make him financially whole. That remains to be seen. But the mere possibility makes the case even more significant. And then there’s the apparent head scratcher of how the recipient of a check for $90K can face bribery charges, when the person who signed the check has already dodged that legal bullet?
The Mayor Ford spectacle speaks to the personal saga of battling substance abuse issues and what to do if a city has no viable recall options while that plays out.
In contrast – since he says he’s done nothing wrong, nothing that others weren’t also doing – the Sen. Duffy scandal speaks to questions of a “business as usual” political culture.
Sen. Duffy may prove to be a rogue, a scapegoat, or both. But the whole mess does have many Canadian voters wondering: who is responsible for ethical standards in the federal government?