(With so much negative press against the Prime Minister, it’s refreshing to read a calm rational analysis like this.)


Colby Cosh: If there’s a scandal in the Duffy affair, why can’t I spot it?

Colby Cosh | August 17, 2015 | Last Updated: Aug 18 10:32 AM ET

I wish I’d captured the exact quote from Twitter, but a paraphrase will have to do: someone said recently, “If you want to feel better about Canada, try explaining the Duffy-Wright scandal to someone from another country in one sentence.” I cannot help feeling that there is something to this. Our media have blitzed a courtroom and consumed great newspaper acreage over a very technical and complicated topic. There is no glamour in the affair, by world standards — phrases like “paid for hookers,” “hired a death squad” or “donations from the Klan” are absent.

Dubious billing procedures by politicians make for good stories. They helped bring down an Alberta government not long ago. But that news story involved using public resources for partisan purposes. In the case of Nigel Wright — as distinguished from the issue of Mike Duffy being a scurrilous, greedy trimmer, a truth we did not need a trial to tell us — the fundamental problem is what the Conservative party and Wright did to defray the questionable expenses imposed upon the treasury.

A scandal and a shame it may be, but in an upside-down way. Mike Duffy’s expense claims have not yet been found to be legally or procedurally wrong. Duffy was unwilling to pay them back. Nigel Wright tried to pre-empt the issue by making use of his personal fortune. It’s a “scandalous” donation of private dollars to the public treasury.

If I ask what is actually scandalous about this, I am guaranteed to receive several different answers. The Conservatives are charged with having considered paying Duffy’s expenses out of party funds, which, I am told, are “public” in nature because they are supported by a tax subsidy. The Conservatives did, of course, contemplate using party funds … but didn’t. And those funds, though subsidized, exist precisely to be applied ad libitum for partisan convenience.

Another theory is that Wright’s payment was, by its inherent nature, a “bribe.” The Conservatives, covering up bribery! — non-lawyers are fond of that one. Whether Duffy was guilty of accepting a bribe is, of course, one of the issues in the trial. It is even less clear that Wright is guilty of having offered a bribe: in law, a bribe does not take two to tango. Under the Criminal Code, giving a bribe means giving money to a legislator in order to get them to do something, or not do something, “in their official capacity.” There are plenty of speculative theories about what Wright had to gain from paying Duffy’s expenses: none, as far as I can see, involve Duffy’s official conduct.

Maybe it’s a bribe in a loose ethical sense, rather than in the strict legal sense? Very well, but that strikes me as an awfully elastic use of the word. Any political donor gives money in the hope of gaining general influence or goodwill. According to my layman’s understanding of the word “bribery,” it would be damned odd for the chief of staff of the Prime Minister’s Office to give a “bribe” to the universally despised holder of an utterly impotent Senate sinecure. If Wright wanted Duffy to vote a certain way on a bill, he scarcely needed to cover him in gold.

Late last week, there was a commotion over what the prime minister and his various functionaries may have known about the Wright-Duffy negotiations, and when they knew it. This avenue of inquiry seems to presume that the negotiations were illegitimate. Harper is being raked over the coals for having said in 2013 that the decision to cover Duffy’s expenses “was made solely by Mr. Wright” — which may be true even though he consulted other PMO staffers — and that “Wright acted alone,” which, in a financial sense, he did. I hate to dismiss anything as “semantics” in the usual way, because semantics are important. But contrived, persnickety use of language seems to be a feature of this whole business.

When media scalp-hunters say the Conservatives were trying to “avoid” or “tamper with” the Deloitte audit of Duffy, for instance, I find myself saying, “Well … yes: they wanted to make the audit unnecessary, to hold Duffy to the strictest view of his financial obligations.” Is that an illegitimate reaction to an audit? If the CRA threatens to audit my tax return, and I respond by filing a new one and adopting adverse interpretations of my allowable deductions, am I doing something bad? Is that a “cover-up” in the ordinary sense?

I also see that Wright is having to confess to yet another sin in agreeing to have PMO spindoctors say “Duffy is repaying” rather than “someone is repaying on his behalf.” From the standpoint of the concerned taxpayer, this seems like another case of a fine-ish distinction being made to carry surprising moral weight. The Duffy process has certainly revealed that the PMO spin squad is large, energetic, advantage-seeking and cockroach-like. Voting for some other prime minister on the grounds that he will not operate any such apparatus seems … well, let’s say “idealistic.”

No doubt I am missing some nuances. I’m sure at least one of foregoing paragraphs is idiotic in some regard. But no one has done a very good job of setting me straight, and if the Duffy trial is to have an influence on the election, that will take simpler explanations, tailored to listeners paying even less attention than me. This is more plea than critique.

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