Autonomy For All: The Senate Scandal’s Connection to Harper’s Worst Acts

Reading this excellent piece by Shawn Whitney on how the left shouldn’t assume great policy will automatically come from the downfall of either Harper or Ford, the author speaks to my own discomfort with the Senate expenses scandal:

At the federal level, Stephen Harper’s troubles have nothing to do with his murder of thousands of Afghans in support of NATO’s attempt to subdue that country. It has nothing to do with his shutdown of the national daycare plan that Paul Martin put in place to try and save his own skin, or his scuppering of the deal he made with first nations people. […]

It has nothing to do with his unbridled support for big oil and their enthusiastic destruction of the environment of Alberta and, indeed, the whole world with the tar sands. Nothing to do with his support for fracking to recover natural gas.

My own list of Harper’s worst misdeeds relate to his contempt for democracy, and specifically the systemic safeguards which help guarantee it continues.  A government which got itself re-elected after making history for being held in actual contempt of Parliament, a leader who authorized an attempt to bribe an independent MP to vote against the previous minority Liberal government’s budget, a group that actually gave its MPs a manual on how to disrupt and confuse committee hearings, and then used the ensuing rancor to break at least the spirit of its own fixed election dates law and call a snap election at a politically opportune moment.

As Whitney does, I find it very easy to keep listing these things. Really, the point is that nailing Harper and his crew vicious ideologues over $90,000 in misclaimed expenses feels a lot like putting Al Capone in prison for tax evasion.  Sure, it might get the job done, but it feels hollow and unsatisfying.

Casuistry Is The Connection

My thinking has changed a bit in considering Duffy’s claims that the PMO and Senate Majority leader pre-cleared his expenses as being compliant with the rules.  This is entirely believable, and has been signature of Harper’s lot their entire time in power: They stretch the meaning of every rule & law to their own benefit well past the point of credulity.  In this case, it is the Senate’s internal interpretation of the Constitution’s Senatorial residency requirements which external auditor Deloitte found to be “unclear.”  It’s easy to see what Harper’s government did with these “unclear” rules:  Interpret them maximally to their own needs of the moment.  This is what they do with everything else, and they have typically gotten away with it.

The examples of this abound:

  • In-And-Out: Breaking Canada’s election financing laws using blatantly contrived specious reasoning about the interpretation of party spending.
  • Coaltion with traitors: Rabble rousing and treason-baiting over the 2008 opposition coaltion deal for including confidence vote support of the BQ when Harper himself had obviously cut a similar deal with the BQ when in the opposition.
  • Using the ordinarily routine practice of proroguation in quiet times to save his premiership from that same opposition deal in the face of a signed letter by a majority of MPs indicating their intent to vote non-confidence against his government.
  • In the case of the previously mentioned contempt of Parliament finding, I’m not even sure Harper’s crew bothered with any rationalization for refusing to provide the documents required, they just judged (correctly) that they could get away with this, and it even suited their purposes for the opposition to force an election.
  • They did get slightly burned over Bev Oda having a non-political staff recommendation falsely reversed to give her cover in refusing funding to an organization the Conservatives just don’t like. Harper just rode this out with characteristic arrogance.  In a preview of the current troubles, Oda would eventually fall to a personal expenses scandal over charging, among other things a $16 glass of orange juice.

It isn’t a coincidence that it is Duffy & Wallin in trouble for expenses either, since their very appointments were constitutionally ludicrous to begin with. Of course Duffy & Wallin needed to rack up unusual travel & housing expenses: they don’t actually reside in the provinces they were supposed to represent.  Harper wanted these two famous, charismatic and fairly popular media personalities on his team, working the speech and fundraising circuits and employed his typical level of intellectual sophistry to re-interpret some very clear law so that “residency” doesn’t mean what it obviously means to most people by any plain language interpretation. Same link on the actual constitutional requirements for Senators:  

One requirement is that the Senator must own $4,000 worth of property in the province he/she represents.

Another and more basic requirement is that a Senator be a resident in the province he/she represents.

I’d bet the Senate has attempted in its arcane and ordinarily publicly ignored way come up with some set of guidance around what “resident” means to cover some uninteresting snowbird Senators who probably spent significant periods of the year in Florida or other sunny climates. Let’s say it is even somehow true that Duffy’s living arrangement somehow meets these loose rules – Harper tried to, as usual, drive a barge through this loophole and has ultimately been tripped up on a combination of his own contempt for laws that inhibit him, and the very plain and obvious meaning of the clause in the Constitution.  Nobody cares what the Senate previously decided “resident” means because we know it cannot possibly legitimately include how little Duffy & Wallin were actually “residing” in their Senatorial provinces.  Harper’s government got caught in a trap of their own deceit, and their only shield would be the self-serving rules of an undemocratic and poorly respected institution.

This is the core linkage of l’affaire du Sénat to this government’s most grievous crimes: Right from the top Harper has set the example of self serving linguistic and legal casuistry.  On arcane but vital matters of democratic institutional survival, he has regularly gotten away with it. When combined with plain old ripping off the treasury, it finally caught up to them, and him.  All the rest, Duffy’s inability and unwillingness to repay out of his own pocket, the crooked deal with Wright, the need for Mulcair’s excellent prosecutorial style of QP jousting falls from this core ethical failing of Harper’s ministry.  They too, like Bush’s wrecking crew thought that they can just act and create their own reality no matter what we say.  This, finally, appears to be a wall such gall cannot breach.

Consider clicking here to vote for this post on Progressive Bloggers.

Continue reading