The Senate reform elephant in the room at the Mike Duffy trial ..

Apr 7th, 2015 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Senator Duffy arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo: Reuters.

The world being what it is at the moment, even (or especially?) in Canada, it is difficult not to be  at least somewhat cynical about the trial of the suspended senator Mike Duffy, that starts in an Ottawa courtroom today.

From this angle Andrew Coyne strikes the right note in a National Post article, headlined “Mike Duffy trial gives all involved a chance to finally expose the glorious truth.” Mr. Coyne concludes  with : “And when they have all had their time on the witness stand, what a glorious moment it will be, when we are at last able to compare their testimony and find that all of their stories — Mr. Wright’s, Sen. Duffy’s, the prime minister’s, the various other senators and lawyers and assorted hangers on — are all true.”

Lawrence Martin in the Globe and Mail offers a view closer to the views of most counterweights editors in “It’s not just Duffy —  the Harper era is on trial.” And he more exactly spells out that “it’s not the fate of Mr. Duffy that has created enormous interest in this trial. It’s the fate of the government. It is the morality, the integrity of the Conservative Party hierarchy, that is on trial.”

At the same time, it seems like only yesterday that Mr. Martin was also telling us Mr. Duffy’s health was not robust enough for his trial this spring to go ahead. (Happily for the Harper Conservatives, etc.) Now we know that Judge Charles Vaillancourt will preside over the Duffy trial that starts today. Mark Holmes and Jason Neubauer are acting for the Crown. Donald Bayne is appearing on behalf of Mr. Duffy. The trial is set to run April 7 to May 12 and June 1 to 19. But “delays are common during trials, so it’s possible the case will stretch beyond” June 19.

Just how bad a Canadian senator has Mike Duffy really been?

Donald Bayne, legal counsel for suspended Senator Mike Duffy. The Canadian Press.

Three pieces by the lovely Jennifer Ditchburn at The Canadian Press — all dated yesterday — provide related and further deep background: “Mike Duffy’s trial won’t just be about him but a circle of powerful Conservatives tied to case” ; “Duffy trial promises crash course in controversial Senate rules” ; and “Who’s who during the Mike Duffy trial.”

Mr. Duffy, some may remember, is a suspended senator representing his provincial home and native land of Prince Edward Island (Canada’s least populous province, with just under 147,000 people).  And it is at least mildly intriguing that PEI residents will be voting in a provincial election more or less in the middle of Mike Duffy’s trial, on Monday, May 4, 2015.

From yet another angle, the ultimate nagging question about the Mike Duffy case that won’t go away is why do we still have a Senate in Canada modelled on the 19th century British House of Lords? As Lawrence Martin’s latest wisdom on the matter suggests : “In the court of public opinion, Senator Mike Duffy may have already been found guilty. That verdict could well be shown wrong. Rules governing Senate housing expenses are vague, and Mr. Duffy has a crackerjack lawyer in Don Bayne.”

It does already seem arguable that Mike Duffy has, to no small extent, just played the traditional frequently sordid role of a Canadian Senator with particular energy and commitment.  We have, for example, recently been informed that : “At least 40 current and former senators have received confidential letters from Auditor General Michael Ferguson about questionable expense claims.”

Senate abolition by stealth …

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appears as a witness at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (The Canadian Press).

Some say that the Supreme Court of Canada has persuaded Stephen Harper to stop trying to reform or even abolish the present unreformed Senate of Canada.

But Linda Trimble, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, has recently argued that “Harper is undertaking a covert demolition of the red chamber. Delivered a smack-down by the court, told it cannot unilaterally achieve its vision for Senate reform, the government is engaging in abolition by stealth … The prime minister has stopped appointing senators. The last appointment was made two years ago, and there are now 18 vacancies. Harper says he is in no hurry to fill the empty seats.” If he were to remain in office for another four years, by the fall of 2019 there could be “at least 48 empty seats in a 105-member chamber. In a few short years, half of the Senate will have withered away.”

Ms. Trimble herself doesn’t like this idea. She believes that “Canada desperately needs a national dialogue on the fate of the Senate. Yet abolition by stealth seems expressly designed to avoid this conversation and to divert attention from the rapidly declining health of parliamentary democracy in Canada. It’s an underhanded way of denying Canadians a meaningful voice in the design and operation of our governing institutions.”

The eventual ultimate outcome of the Mike Duffy trial that starts today, however, just may make Senate abolition by stealth seem like yet another of Stephen Harper’s clever strategies, in a country that remains very difficult to govern — and almost impossible to reform.

The Heave Steve video from Saskatchewan

Justice Charles Vaillancourt will be weighing evidence in Mike Duffy's fraud trial, which gets under way in Ottawa April 7. The Toronto-based Ontario Court jurist from Sault Ste Marie is known as an experienced trial judge who is fair to both the defence and crown.

Personally, I do think cynicism of this sort is not a good thing for the future of Canada. And like Ms. Trimble, I worry about “the rapidly declining health of parliamentary democracy” in our country.

But I also find it difficult not to be at least somewhat cynical about the trial of the suspended senator Mike Duffy, that starts in an Ottawa courtroom today.

Like others working at this site I will be pleased if the Duffy trial does somehow serve to weaken Stephen Harper’s grip on federal power in Canada today. (I like the “Heave Steve” video recently posted on YouTube by local musicians from John Diefenbaker’s old homeland of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, “including NDP Candidate Lon Borgerson.”)

Alas, I also believe there are grounds for worrying the trial might finally just be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing — a forum in which, as Andrew Coyne has suggested, all the seemingly conflicting stories of the various conflicting parties finally all seem true, and no one is  held accountable for anything!

In any case, if you are determined to follow every twist and turn of what happens in court you can click on “Live coverage of Mike Duffy fraud trial Tuesday,” on the Toronto Star website.

I might even look in briefly at some point myself.

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