Senate scandal dominated 2013

In a year dominated by the Senate spending scandal, a saga which continued to flare as the government and its Conservative senators kept throwing gas on the fire, there were other significant federal developments in 2013.

In a year dominated by the Senate spending scandal, a saga which continued to flare as the government and its Conservative senators kept throwing gas on the fire, there were other significant federal developments in 2013.

But not many.

And those that would have otherwise dominated news coverage for days were reduced to mere hours on the news cycle because of the Senate monster and the ongoing saga of Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin.

A midsummer cabinet shuffle injected some youth into Stephen Harper’s inner guard, a ‘consumer-friendly’ throne speech was unveiled and a giant trade deal with the European Union was signed – all three landed with a thud and became an instant afterthought in the face of the Senate story.

The following, in my view, were the five dates that had to be circled in federal politics in 2013, all moments which will continue to play out in 2014 but helped define the year about the end.

Jan. 11 — As protesting members of Canada’s First Nations crowded in front of the door, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sits down with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo in the Langevin Block, taking the heat away from the Idle No More movement and an ongoing liquids-only fast by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. Atleo says Harper committed to move urgently on aboriginal concerns, but the sense of a breakthrough is illusory.

At year’s end, First Nations communities in British Columbia are set to do battle over the giant Northern Gateway pipeline and Atleo is still fighting with the Conservatives to close the gap in funding for aboriginal education reform and give natives control of their own education. A year later, native discontent is merely on simmer and could blow any time.

April 14 — Justin Trudeau is elected Liberal leader and the Canadian political landscape is shifted.

Trudeau gave a moribund party oxygen, and more. Whether it was his robust endorsement of marijuana legalization, his musings on Chinese dictatorship or the roots of terrorism, he made news and kept Liberal fortunes at the top of the news cycle for good or bad, mostly good.

At year’s end, Trudeau is leading the polls, which mystifies on a couple of levels. It is a testament to style, because it appears Trudeau merely needs to show up somewhere to win support. But instead of appealing just to younger voters, he has strength among older voters — those who actually vote. At year’s end, the Liberals are the only federal party with a net gain over a year ago.

However, the further we move away from his installation on the national stage, the more likely those mysterious forces which keep him aloft could be clipped.

May 14 — CTV reports Harper’s chief of staff Wright personally bailed out Duffy by writing a cheque to the Conservative senator that was used to repay more than $90,000 in improperly claimed Senate living expenses. In the immediate wake of the report, Harper’s office tried everything to defend Wright, including suggesting he was doing a favour to a friend (Wright was actually incensed with Duffy) to arguing he was helping the beleaguered taxpayer.

Neither worked and Wright resigned (or as Harper later said, was dismissed) on the Victoria Day weekend.

The report set in motion seven months during which the spending scandal dominated all news from Ottawa and severely damaged Harper’s credibility and authority.

Oct. 17 — The Senate Conservative majority seeks to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau (Harb had already resigned) but the move backfires because during the debate, which stretches into November, the trio use the forum to toss further allegations, including lies, broken deals with Harper’s office and treatment by other senators onto the fire.

The debate devolves into a tacky version of high school confidential at times, but it gives Duffy enough time and space to fling a series of allegations back at Harper, forcing the prime minister to endure what is likely the worst two-week period of the year.

In the end, the Senate gets the job done, but does so by ignoring due process, embarrassing itself in the process and making its own argument for abolition.

Nov. 20 — An RCMP court filing seeking further email traffic and documents in the scandal alleges Wright and Duffy committed bribery, fraud on the government and breach of trust. None of the allegations have been proven in court, but more importantly the ITO — Information to Obtain a production order — delivered an unprecedented trove of correspondence between Wright and other members of Harper’s PMO, leading to further allegations about Harper’s involvement, potential audit tampering involving the Deloitte investigation of Duffy’s expenses and the level of involvement and pressure placed on the Senate by staffers in Harper’s office bent on whitewashing a Senate report on Duffy.

It raises questions about Harper’s knowledge of the initial plan to make $32,000 of party funds available to Duffy to repay the expenses and the involvement of another senator, Irving Gerstein, the party’s chief fundraiser who controls the party fund.

Apart from the original revelation of Wright’s payment to Duffy, no document provides more details about the shady deal-making and ethical transgressions taking place right under Harper’s nose.

A move by a heretofore ethically chaste chief of staff to make a problem go away turned out to be the story of the year and the Duffy bomb is a sure bet to be a major political player in the new year.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

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