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The rules of the Senate aren't 'unclear.' Just don't rob the citizens of Canada

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When word first got out a few years ago that Mike Duffy was in some trouble for some alleged hanky-panky related to his Senate job, every wise guy in Ottawa smirked knowingly. Was there a breathing soul on Parliament Hill who didn't know that ole Duff, though a P.E.I. boy, had actually long lived down the road in the Ottawa burbs?

Besides, no one who knew the first thing about Ottawa doubted why Stephen Harper had appointed Mr. Duffy. The agenda was completely unhidden. Duff was in the Senate, as were so many other senators, to work for the ruling party on the country's dime.

And work for it he did. Good old Duff may have done some public business, but if so, I never heard about it. But that he was crazy busy speaking to Conservative riding associations and Conservative funders across the country was common knowledge to the entire political class.

Did anyone ever wonder who was paying his expenses when he flew all over the country for the sake of his party, now that he was an official Conservative? Nah. It was taken for granted. The job covered it all. That's what the job was for, for heaven's sakes. And that's what the Senate had pretty well always been for, with a few notable exceptions.

From the first, much of Mr. Duffy's defence, and that of all the other senators who had engaged in dubious activities, was that the rules of the institution were unclear. Poor senators hardly knew what they were entitled to. This always seemed to my tired old ears like so much non-kosher baloney, any way you sliced it. The proper course was always self-evident: Don't rob the citizens of Canada. Act in good faith. Use common sense if there is any doubt. Actions don't have to be illegal to be wrong.

After all, getting appointed to the Senate is like winning the lottery. You're set financially for life. Your booty for the PM of the day arbitrarily naming you is now nearly $150,000 a year plus generous expenses until you're 75, then you get a nice plump pension until you have shuffled off your mortal coil.

Me, I'm among those democrats who've always thought it was immoral for the government of Canada to have any such perks to hand out, and immoral for those offered such a prize to accept it. But if you did, your duty was surely clear: to treat the position with the greatest possible respect and to put in a fair day's work in the public interest.

That meant -- self-evidently in my view -- that the rules allowed you either to behave honourably and not exploit public funds for personal or partisan purposes, or to take advantage of loose, careless regulations to cream off as much as possible from we the people. This truth always seemed to me a big fat no-brainer. Any senator who took advantage of ambiguous Senate regulations and erred on the side of abusing their public trust was guilty of something. Even if it wasn't a criminal offence, at least it deserved an embarrassing public rebuke instead of the total whitewash that Justice Charles Vaillancourt gifted Senator Duffy.

Of course, many Canadians cheered the judge's ferocious attack on the thuggish behaviour of the Prime Minister's Office. But a tougher condemnation of the Senate itself was surely in order. After all, there was Marjory LeBreton, on the day of Justice Vaillancourt's decision, telling CBC's Rosie Barton how pleased she was that the Senate had begun cleaning up some of its mess. Yet as Mr. Harper's leader of the government in the Senate, Ms. LeBreton seems to have done nothing to clarify those damned mystifying rules that got the poor innocent old Duffster in so much trouble.

In fact, Ms. LeBreton's colleague David Tkachuk, considered the institution's "guru" on expense matters, seems to have actively instructed Mr. Duffy to file housing claims and related expense claims even though he lived just outside Ottawa in his own home. Otherwise, Mr. Duffy would have violated the most sacrosanct rule of the Senate: don't draw attention to such unethical practices. Otherwise, there was the fear it would taint other senators in the same awkward position, which could hardly be tolerated. As well, it might remind the world that Mr. Duffy, now an Ontario boy, was not in fact constitutionally eligible to represent P.E.I., as he himself knew and reminded a blasé Mr. Harper.

On the larger Senate front, we now are told ye Hon. Senators, having been rudely awakened, are considering rejecting the government's controversial assisted-suicide legislation if it passes the House in its present form. For my money, that would amount to a virtual coup by unelected, unrepresentative senators, for which they should suffer cruel and unusual punishment.

Who knows? Maybe there's something in the air in the Red Chamber that turns run-of-the-mill political hacks into perpetrators of chicanery and deviousness. Maybe it's the quiet guilt they feel in belonging to such a wholly undemocratic body that has repeatedly proved itself both unreformable and un-abolitionable. Justin Trudeau's personal appointment of supposedly non-partisan senators perfectly misses the point. In a democracy, their selection, like their new home, is fundamentally illegitimate under any circumstance. The unethical, dishonourable behaviour of its incumbents merely pours salt into already gaping wounds in the democratic process.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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