Lessons in the Senate Scandal

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It has only been a few days but this Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau thing is driving me nuts. What is going to happen to them? This horse and pony show is driving me crazy.

You’re not alone, my friend. This is being discussed in bars, lunch rooms, and in the back seats of taxis around the country. The whole darn thing has been driving a lot of people nuts for weeks and even months. But what’s this got to do with us Indigenous types, you ask? Everything. It’s a text book lesson in politics, from “the Hill” to the band office.

But my friend asked what’s going to happen to Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau? And what’s it all about?

Short answer: they’re toast. They were the moment they became political liabilities to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. It’s not about rules, the law or some high principle. It’s about power. Dat’s it. Dat’s all.

A few Senators may stand up on principle, wax poetic about the injustice of kangaroo courts, bang their desks about natural justice, fair play, due process, and (best of all) the rule of law. In the end though, most Senators – especially those put there by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – will carry out the public execution Harper wants. Hell, he demands it.

There is no real debate in the Senate. There may be motions, put forward and supported by Conservative Senators with only a few exceptions, like Senators Hugh Segal and Don Plett speaking out against it. Liberal Senators will stand against the motions perhaps because they believe what they say but also because it’s politically safe and even expected for them to oppose the motion as Liberals. But it’s a done deal. The vote has already been decided – not by Conservative majority votes in the Senate but by fiat from the PMO.

Actually, there are six motions in the Senate but they all do the same thing – “suspend” or kick out Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau from the Senate. No salaries. No office or expense tabs. No health plans or pensions for them. Senator Pamela Wallin (I can still call her that this morning) nailed it when she said it isn’t a “suspension” but an “expulsion”. Cut through the b.s. and it’s nothing more than a “show trial”, says Senator Duffy who compared it to something that might happen in Iran or Putin’s Russia. He’s right too.

They, of all people, should not expect better. Wallin and Duffy were experienced journalists who covered politics for decades. Insiders on Parliament Hill, they made friends, rubbed shoulders and shared gossip with the politically powerful. More than most, they saw how mean and venal they could be when the thin veneer of civility was scraped away. In fact, once appointed to the Senate, it seemed like they relished the role of political hit-man and -woman for the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party in that order. Brazeau too, just as much when he was given his “cash-for-life” deal. Payback time for the little people, and their slights and sideways glances. They weren’t angels, liked or loved; feared maybe and even hated.

Anyone who thinks the drama playing itself out in the Senate isn’t about raw political power is naive. Or lying to themselves by clinging to fairy tales about democratic principles, parliamentary procedures, and charters of rights and values. Those three have already had their sentences passed by the Prime Minister. The charges, with as much conviction and highfalutin’ language as their defenders, will be about “abuse of privilege”, padding of expenses, and lying about places of residence. Off with their heads.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love listening to the reasoned, passionate and deeply felt appeals and arguments for and against the motions in the Senate. Listening to the speeches and arguments, day after day this week, I was struck however by the nagging feeling that it’s being wasted on three people who don’t deserve it.

Why don’t we hear such passionate debates, such heart-felt appeals and declarations for independent thought and freedom of political action from this same Senate when bills come before it that undermine Indigenous rights, missing and murdered women, give licence to wholesale exploitation and ruination of lands and resources, or weaken the same democratic institutions they represent?  Instead, most of these Senators dutifully carry out their marching orders issued by their party masters for the good of leader, and the party, in that order.  To hell with the victims.  The hypocrisy of this daily soap opera must be nagging at the minds of people, and that’s yet another reason why Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau must go. Doubt is dangerous in the mind of the voter.

Brazeau’s case is different from the other two. He faces criminal charges for sexual assault. He hasn’t had a trial yet. But a guilty verdict would mean automatic expulsion from the Senate. Conceivably, even if found guilty, Brazeau might still be able to collect a Senate pension. Not with the present motions facing him, Duffy and Wallin though — even though none of them have been found guilty of anything criminal yet, including deliberately cheating on their expense claims. Sinners can be saints too no matter how much we might gag at the thought.

Right from the start of this fiasco, we all knew that nothing less than very public executions would do. Nothing else would satisfy the PM and his O. The real crime of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, as everyone knows now, was embarrassing Stephen Harper. The trio were politically-speaking “dead men walking” the moment himself cut them loose.

ImageHe appointed them, and at the time people whispered if they were worthy? Harper praised and patted them as they ripped into his opponents and non-supporters. At the time people whispered shock at their vindictiveness.  When the actions of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau threatened his image, Harper ordered his Senate to line them up, aim and fire to take advantage of the mobs’ cries for blood. The RCMP’s criminal and the auditor’s financial investigations may not be done yet but that doesn’t matter anymore. These three had to go — now. Quickly, before the mobs faded away.

This all started, like any good scandal, with questions about money; ill-gotten, misused, or abused. It evolved into waves of questions and criticisms about the Senate as repository of political pork and outdated privilege. Once the accused refused to go quietly, attention turned from them to the person who put them there. The buck stops at the PMO, and with Harper himself, no matter how hard he tries to avoid questions or clear answers. It’s about his judgement back then, when he decided to break a promise and stack the Senate with loyal snout. It’s about his poor judgement now, refusing to accept responsibility for this mess.

It’s about power and privilege and challenges to both – to the Prime Minister and those “boys in short pants” down the hall, as Duffy put it. The story is as old as power struggles with the kings of Zimbabwe or the Tudors. It’s as new as calls for accountability in the National Chief’s office at the Assembly of First Nations, or the Minister’s office at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, or the chief’s office at the band council.

There’s nothing noble about any of it.  It’s politics. It’s about power, plain and simple.

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