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By: Anita Elash
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For decades it was well-known on Parliament Hill that Mike Duffy, Canada’s best-loved political reporter, harboured ambitions of becoming a Senator.
His not-so-secret dream became a reality in 2009 and now, six years later, has turned into a nightmare for both Duffy and the man who appointed him, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“What (Duffy) found out was that politics as practiced by real politicians is infinitely more dirty, more nasty, more hypocritical, and for much higher stakes than he ever dreamed,” Duffy biographer Dan Leger told the fifth estate’s Linden MacIntyre in a documentary that traces how Duffy’s ambition and questionable expenses led to a political scandal that could take down the Senate.
“This is not Mike Duffy’s Ottawa,” added Paul Wells, author and political editor for Maclean’s magazine. “If you become inconvenient to Stephen Harper, you have a very short shelf life in this town.”
Duffy was suspended from the Senate in November 2013 for making $90,000 in dubious expense claims for the time he spent in Ottawa on Senate business. The RCMP began investigating Duffy for possible criminal charges in connection with filing the expenses and making a deal to have Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright repay them.
In July 2014 the Mounties charged Duffy with 31 counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in relation to his Senate expenses. The RCMP has been speaking with several current and former Conservative members of parliament, to determine whether Duffy’s work for the party was for legitimate Senate business or for “personal and partisan reasons.”
Duffy’s trial is set to begin on April 7, 2014.
Senators Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin were also suspended without pay in November 2013. The RCMP is investigating 150 Senate expense claims made by Wallin, and Brazeau has been charged with one count each of fraud and breach of trust.
Senator Mac Harb has also been charged by the RCMP with fraud and breach of trust. Harb announced his retirement from the Senate on August 26, 2013.
Political observers say Prime Minister Harper’s brand has been damaged, especially among Conservative grassroots supporters who keep a close eye on every penny the government spends. Calls to abolish the Senate are increasing.
KING OF THE HILL
The fifth estate documentary tracks Duffy’s rise and fall through interviews with his colleagues and friends. According to childhood friends, Duffy first talked about his ambition to work on Parliament Hill when he was just 14 years old.
“I remember we’re coming from a dance or whatever and Mike said, ‘Are you gonna become a doctor, become a priest? Become a lawyer?’ Mike says ‘I wanna go to the Hill,’” said Charles McMillan, who grew up with Duffy in Charlottetown, PEI and went on to become a political strategist.
Duffy had his first taste of television in 1962 at age 15, as a co-host of a television dance program for teens in Charlottetown. Within 10 years, he had been assigned to cover Parliament Hill for a private radio station and by the late 1970s he was a rising star on CBC TV’s nightly newscast The National.
Duffy was known on Parliament Hill as an affable character whose persistence and charm helped him coax information out of an extensive list of contacts that included everyone from cabinet ministers to lowly backbenchers.
He became as famous as the people he reported on and often attracted more attention, said David Halton, a renowned foreign correspondent who worked with Duffy as the CBC’s chief political correspondent.
“His role on the hill was essentially as our schmoozer in chief,” said Halton. “By all accounts he carried, when he traveled, this little briefcase with a lot of photographs of himself. So when people came up to ask for an autograph, he’d pull one out, ‘Oh, I’ve got the photograph as well.’”
As Duffy’s fame grew, so did his taste for power. Duffy lobbied for a seat in the Senate as far back as the 1980s, said Lowell Murray, a retired Senator and chief strategist for former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Murray said that Duffy asked him to put his case forward to Mulroney in the mid-1980s. When he mentioned it to Mulroney, “He would say ‘I know,’” Murray told the fifth estate. “This was not news.”
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien said that Duffy also asked him for an appointment in the 1990s and former Liberal MP Shawn Murphy said that former Prime Minister Paul Martin considered naming Duffy to The Red Chamber during his term in the mid-2000s.
Harper finally gave Duffy a Senate job in December, 2008. Although Harper came to office promising he would never name an un-elected Senator, he included Duffy along with 17 others as part of a mass appointment that gave him a Conservative majority in the Senate.
At the time, Duffy was finishing his 20th year as the host of his own show from Parliament Hill on CTV.
Just two months earlier, in the final days of the 2008 federal election campaign, Duffy aired parts of an interview with CTV in Halifax in which then Liberal leader Stephane Dion seemed to have trouble understanding English and explaining his economic policy and asked to hear the same question several times.
“When the interview ran on the local show here in the Maritimes, you saw the stopping and starting and fumbling and going back and the re-asks but you also saw the entire interview about Afghanistan, the economy, you name it,” said Leger.
“Duffy played this tape over and over and over but not the interview. Just the parts which made Stephane Dion look like he could not answer a question in English.”
The interview aired just five days before the October, 2008 federal election. Harper’s Conservatives, which had been trailing in the polls, surged ahead and won a narrow victory.
In some circles, Duffy was accused of partisanship, a perception that Wells says was reinforced when Duffy was named Senator.
“That’s a smoking gun if I ever saw one,” said Wells. “If you don’t want to look like a Tory shill, stay out of the Senate. And Mike wasn’t able to resist the offer when it came.”
Duffy quickly became one of the Conservative Party’s star attractions. He traveled the country to appear at riding association meetings in small towns, appeared in the role of sympathetic television interviewer at Party conventions and prepared a series of personalized fundraising videotapes sent out to party members.
When scandal erupted in Ottawa over questionable expenses filed by Senators, Duffy’s star status turned him into a liability for Harper and the Conservative Party.
Harper ordered him to repay his dubious expenses, but when Duffy claimed he had done nothing wrong and refused to pay, Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, decided to cover the expenses himself.
Wright resigned when his payment to Duffy came to light, but the scandal grew as Harper faced repeated questions in Parliament over what he knew about the affair. He initially defended Wright and Duffy, but then changed his approach and called for Duffy’s suspension and claimed that Wright had been fired.
Duffy, along with Senators Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin, was suspended without pay in November 2013.
Duffy’s colleagues blame his downfall in part on what they describe as a burgeoning sense of entitlement. Duffy eventually lost his way, said Leger, author of the biography Duffy: Stardom to Senate to Scandal, as his sense of entitlement outgrew even his fame.
“He got himself into it,” said Leger. “He’s the guy who submitted the expense claims. He’s the guy who said that Stephen Harper is the greatest Prime Minister since John A. McDonald. He’s got to live with it.”
The fifth estate asked to speak with Duffy but he declined. His lawyer sent a statement saying he had done nothing wrong and “trusts the patience and fairness of Canadians to wait until the story is fully told before rushing to judgment.”