Benjamin Perrin’s testimony on Thursday reminded us that, regardless of what Stephen Harper knew or when, every tendril in the Duffy scandal leads back to the Prime Minister, and his insistence that hapless Mike pretend he lives in P.E.I.
When Duffy’s Senate appointment was first mooted, it was Harper, not Duffy, who decided his new appointee should don red pigtails and make like Anne of Green Gables. This despite the fact that he hasn’t lived in the province since the 1970s. Duffy protested the plan; even he, ethically-challenged as he has turned out to be, could recognize a grift when presented with one. Couldn’t he represent Ontario instead, he asked, since that’s where, you know, he actually lives? But no; Harper had a PEI seat to fill, and so Mike would just have to rediscover how much the old sod meant to him. Without, you know, having to actually live atop it.
Now, that didn’t force Duffy to then start claiming expenses on the Ottawa home in which he’d lived for years, or engage in the other abuses of the taxpayer’s dime with which he’s charged. When he sent an e-mail to Ray Novak, then Harper’s principal secretary and now his increasingly embattled chief of staff, insisting that he “did nothing wrong,” he may have meant that the Senate’s rules on residency were so imprecise that nobody could really pin anything on him, but that ignored a whole swack of other bad behaviour. But the $90,000 cheque that is at the centre of the scandal would never have been written if Harper hadn’t launched the con in the first place.
It’s revealing, not only of Harper’s willingness to embrace a cheap political fix, but of how he really feels about the country’s regional character. He came into office as the standard-bearer for what many of us then called, with a mix of anger and exasperation, the Rest of Canada — ie., anyplace that wasn’t Toronto or Ottawa. He had cast himself as battling for regional rights from his earliest days as a public figure, co-authoring a plan with Preston Manning to “decentralize and modernize” Canada, and signing the so-called “Alberta firewall” letter.
Once installed as PM, he appeared ready to walk the talk, when he introduced a motion in parliament to recognize Quebec as a nation. (It passed.) This was pretty impressive coming from a guy who’d got his start in the sometimes francophobic Reform Party, but since then he’s been a bust for effecting real structural change in Canada. He and other one-time firebrands would tell you that’s because it’s just too hard — that it’s not their fault the Supreme Court ruled, for example, that the Senate could only be reformed with the consent of seven of the 10 provinces with at least 50 per cent of the population. So they might as well sleaze it up, or starve it to death, instead.
But it’s become increasingly clear that Harper never was much interested in the regional thing, except insofar as the flames of alienation could be fanned to get him into office. Since then, it’s been all about mining the Constitution for loopholes that allow him to push through a right-wing agenda while simultaneously ducking the consequences of it — as when he prorogued Parliament. The Constitution he claimed he was going to modernize has become Harper’s jizz rag instead. And, as his instructions to Duffy indicate, the good people of P.E.I. don’t need a real representative in the Senate. Harper needs another Conservative operative.
Ironically, the one change the Supremes told the government it could unilaterally make to the Senate is the one Harper is least interested in. Under the 1867 Constitution Act, Senators must own at least $4000 worth of property in the province they purport to represent. It’s as bizarrely anachronistic as much of the rest of the Act. But as we learned on Thursday, when Perrin, then the PMO’s legal counsel, told Harper that Duffy’s appointment as a P.E.I. representative was probably unconstitutional because he was plainly a resident of Ontario, it was the $4000 canard that Harper fell back on in rejecting Perrin’s advice. Never mind that the $4000 figure is in 19th-century dollars; never mind that an essential qualification to speak for people would seem to be to live among them. Mike Duffy owned a cabin in P.E.I, and, regardless of how much time he spent there, that was good enough for Stephen Harper.
So when he says he’s not going to punish subordinates for decisions made by their bosses, he’s being disingenuous in the extreme, because he’s the boss who started this whole mess. Not Nigel Wright, not Mike Duffy — him. And as he campaigns this Fall, voters in the Rest of Canada — which has now come to mean anyplace that isn’t the PMO or 24 Sussex Drive — would do well to remember that they have become invisible to him. Not real P.E.I.ers, not real Albertans even, needing real representation at the centre, but rather abstractions, whose votes he still needs, but who can otherwise go to hell. The only region Stephen Harper has ever really represented is himself and a small circle of extreme ideologues, most of whom abandoned him long ago, or he them. He is very nearly a region of one, now. If we’re smart, we’ll build a firewall around it.