Without meaning to, Mike Duffy may have changed the Senate forever

Stephen Harper may now regret appointing Mike Duffy to the Senate, given the damage the expenses scandal did to his government. But that appointment helped to achieve — in a very limited, backhanded way — a policy goal of Harper's government: Senate reform.

The expenses scandal became an opening for reforms future governments may be unable to walk back

Senator Mike Duffy returns to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, May 2, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper once signed a photograph for Mike Duffy with a caption telling the senator for Prince Edward Island that he was one of his "best, hardest-working appointments ever."

Harper himself probably would dispute that description now. But it's possible that Duffy, who retired from the Senate this week, will go down as Harper's most consequential appointment — one that ultimately might be seen as having helped to change the Senate forever.

The Harper government's official attempts at Senate reform — a half-hearted push to launch Senate elections — didn't get far. And when the Supreme Court ruled that formalizing an elected Senate would require negotiating a constitutional amendment with the provinces, Harper shrugged and moved on.

By then, Harper already had named 59 individuals to the Senate. But in the spring of 2015, Harper declared he would not appoint anyone else — a vow that no doubt had something to do with the fact that so many of his previous appointees were causing so much trouble.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks away following a television interview with Mike Duffy in Ottawa Feb. 20, 2007.

Among Harper's Senate appointees, Duffy might not be the one most deserving of notoriety. Don Meredith resigned in 2017 following allegations of sexual misconduct. Lynn Beyak resigned earlier this year after being suspended twice because of racist letters posted to her Senate website.

Harper also appointed a number of party apparatchiks to the Red Chamber — perhaps hoping that some egregiously partisan appointments would build support for reforming the Senate.

But what roiled Parliament Hill the most from 2013 to 2015 was the Senate expenses scandal. And at the centre of that was the "Old Duff," the avuncular former television journalist who had become familiar to millions of Canadians over decades of covering Parliament Hill.

The cascading scandal ultimately would ensnare more than two dozen senators, but it was Duffy's decision to claim a housing allowance for his long-time residence near Ottawa that helped to get things started.

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to then-prime minister Stephen Harper. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Duffy was foremost among the senators who became the public faces of the scandal. But then he became one of the main characters in an explosive political affair when it was revealed that Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had personally transferred $90,000 to the senator so that Duffy could repay the Senate for his questionable expenses. (It also later emerged that Harper's office had pushed to rewrite a Senate committee's report on Duffy's expenses.)

In a sensational twist, the consummate showman and talented storyteller finally turned on his patrons, rising in the Senate to allege that a "monstrous political scheme" had been perpetrated. Rarely, if ever, has the Senate provided a better show.

After being appointed to the Senate in 2009 — in the middle of the "coalition crisis" — Duffy had been a lucrative asset for the Conservative fundraising machine, travelling from riding to riding to spin yarns and wave the party flag for paying audiences.

The 'Duffy affair' and its fallout

But as a symbol of patronage, scandal and coverup, the "Duffy affair" became one of the Harper government's greatest liabilities — particularly when Duffy's trial on multiple charges of fraud and breach of trust coincided with the 2015 election campaign.

Harper's Conservatives lost that election. Six months later, a judge issued a ruling that acquitted Duffy on all counts and excoriated the plotting by Harper's staff.

Once exonerated, Duffy turned to the courts seeking reimbursement and damages from the Senate. But his lawsuit was dismissed because the Senate's proceedings are protected by parliamentary privilege — a fact that Duffy lamented in his final speech to the chamber.

"The Senate is unelected and unaccountable to anyone other than itself," he said last month.

Maybe so. But the Senate's nightmare of scandal and drama set the stage for a period of unprecedented change.

The Independents arrive

Harper's failure to advance Senate reform and the expenses crisis provided the impetus for Justin Trudeau to eject senators from the Liberal parliamentary caucus and propose a non-partisan appointment process.

The vacancies that Harper left behind then gave the Liberal government a chance to quickly stock the upper chamber with new Independent senators — just 20 seats in the Senate are still filled by "partisan" senators.

And that, in turn, has led to a Senate that is eager to take an active role in reviewing legislation while still ultimately deferring to the House (so far, at least).

If you pine for an elected Senate — or for no Senate at all — these changes won't suffice. But you would be hard-pressed to argue that this new version of the Senate isn't at least harder to hold in complete contempt.

If Trudeau fills all existing and immediately upcoming vacancies — two more spots are set to open up in July — there could be at least 87 Independent senators in the upper chamber by this fall.

That's probably enough to ensure some kind of lasting mark on the place, regardless of what happens in the next election. Legislation currently before the Senate would also amend the Parliament of Canada Act to better accommodate the new Independents.

Easier to do than to undo

It remains to be seen what Erin O'Toole or some other future Conservative prime minister would do with Senate appointments. In the Conservative leadership campaign, O'Toole said he would "encourage" provinces to hold their own Senate elections. But in the absence of a sudden burst of enthusiasm from provincial governments, O'Toole would end up having to fill some of the Senate's seats himself.

Maybe he would dismiss Trudeau's independents and attempt to bolster the ranks of Conservative partisans in the Senate. But there has to be some chance that the next Conservative prime minister won't want to do anything that reminds people of the messes Harper left behind.

Maybe that means coming up with a slightly different process for appointing Independents. At the very least, it might mean not inviting appointees to raise funds for the Conservative Party, and not dabbling in the affairs of the Senate.

It might ultimately be very hard to be seen as moving backwards from the changes that have been made over the last few years.

Mike Duffy can't quite take credit for those changes. He also might not have deserved quite the amount of notoriety that was heaped upon him.

But the scandal created an opening for reform and the scrutiny laid bare how much needed to change. Depending on what the future brings, Duffy's time in the Senate might be regarded as a turning point for an institution that had resisted change for nearly 150 years.

As a former journalist, he might appreciate what a remarkable story that is.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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