Politics·Analysis

Mike Duffy trial: Harper's gone, but Senate scandal lingers: Rosemary Barton

When last we left this place, the importance of every word was being weighed in courtroom 33 and beyond. The next phase of the Mike Duffy trial begins tomorrow, but save for one witness, the spotlight has already begun to fade on the Ottawa courthouse.

P.E.I. senator's fate still hangs in the balance, but political implications have changed dramatically

Suspended Senator Mike Duffy is set to take the stand at some point in the next phase of his trial. Duffy has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

When last we left this place, the importance of every word was being weighed in courtroom 33 and beyond.

The next phase of the Mike Duffy trial begins tomorrow but — save for one witness — the spotlight has already begun to fade on the Ottawa courthouse.

The star political witness has already testified, in the form of Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

In August, Wright testified he never told the then prime minister about the details of this deal with Duffy and that he felt he had an obligation to repay $90,000 of Duffy's contested expenses in the "public interest."

But it is fair to say that most of the backroom political intrigue has already been revealed by the Crown and by former Conservative PMO insiders and there may be very little left to expose on that front.

And perhaps, most critically, the political implications of the trial are no longer the same.

Harper is no more. His former chief of staff, Ray Novak, who may or may not have known some of the specifics of that $90,000 payment from Wright to Duffy, now works for Calgary MP Stephen Harper.

Indeed, none of the major players in the trial currently hold any positions of political power in Ottawa. The election on Oct. 19 saw to that.

The man of the hour: Duffy himself

That is not to say the trial no longer matters.

Duffy's fate still hangs in the balance. He has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. And as his lawyer, Donald Bayne, likes to remind the court, Duffy's very freedom is what is at issue.

That may be true, but Bayne now has fewer tools at his disposal to secure that freedom. Who can forget the dramatic moment in April when Bayne entered into evidence an autographed photo of Harper and Duffy.

The photo read "To Duffy. A great journalist and a great senator. Thanks for being one of my hardest working appointments ever." It was signed by Stephen Harper.

The photo, signed by then prime minister Stephen Harper, and dated June 11, 2009, carries the message: 'To Duff. A great journalist and a great senator. Thanks for being one of my best, hardest working appointments ever.' (CBC)

The photo proved little, except perhaps the fact that Harper did value Duffy at some point during his time as senator.

In terms of dramatic effect, though, it reminded everyone that this case was playing out in a courtroom and in a political sphere where the damage could be just as serious for some.

But those theatrical props lose their value when one of the characters at the centre of the story is no longer prime minister.

Of course, we are still expecting to hear from Duffy himself.

Bayne has always said Duffy will testify on his own behalf and that could happen in the weeks ahead as the Crown wraps up its case and the focus shifts to the defence.

The suspended senator has been anxious to tell his story from the beginning and given his flair for storytelling, he will undoubtedly draw crowds and attention.

And maybe, just maybe, Duffy has kept political secrets to be used for his own testimony, although we have seen no evidence this is the case to date.

Other senators still hang in the balance

But beyond the drama, or lack thereof, there is another group of people who will keep a close eye on what is left of the proceedings:

That group includes the senators who have been charged and are facing trial (Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb), a senator who is still being investigated (Pamela Wallin), to say nothing of the other senators who were audited this past year by the auditor general, some of whom have had their files passed on to the RCMP.

In 2013, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau denounced their proposed suspensions from the Senate as a violation of their fundamental right to due process and the presumption of innocence. (Canadian Press)

When Justice Vaillancourt finally rules on Duffy's fate, he may also have a judgment on the way the Senate does its business.

That verdict may further influence some of the changes the Red Chamber has already begun in its bid to reform and clean its own house.

But from a purely political point of view, it is hard to imagine how the Duffy trial could do more damage than it has already done. And it is even harder to imagine how that could happen given the current upheaval in the nation's capital.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.

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