POLITICS CHATTER: With the Senate (and senators) in the news, a defence of sorts for Senator Mike Duffy
People & Places

POLITICS CHATTER: With the Senate (and senators) in the news, a defence of sorts for Senator Mike Duffy

Mike Duffy is just one of the journalists to have been appointed to the Senate over the years.

Stevie Cameron, a fine person, brilliant journalist, and best-selling author who’s about to be inducted into the Order of Canada, is no prophet.

“If (Mike) Duffy is appointed to the Senate – the rumour that makes its way around the circuit at least twice a year,” Cameron wrote in her 1989 best-seller Ottawa Inside Out, “not even his fellow journalists, usually an envious lot, will mind.”

Well, it seems they do mind.

Many journalists have been appointed to the Senate through the years: Charles Bishop of the Ottawa Citizen, Richard Doyle of the Globe and Mail, Joan Fraser of the Montreal Gazette, Betty Kennedy of Toronto radio station CFRB, Linda Frum, part-time columnist at the National Post, for starters.

But Duffy has been a lightning rod. From the moment of his appointment, he’s been whacked by his former colleagues and opposition parties for supposedly trading partisan reporting for a soft landing in the Senate.

Maybe there’s some truth to that, but most journalists appointed to the Senate had showed their political stripes. Doyle ran a fine Tory newspaper. Fraser landed in the Senate when Conrad Black fired her for being too liberal, and Jean Chrétien wanted to rub mud in Black’s face. Frum was partisan in her infrequent Post writings. And Charlie Bishop was lead political columnist on a paper that was pro-Tory (after a brief flirtation with Social Credit).

I think there’s an interesting dynamic here. Of all the journalists I’ve mentioned, Duffy is one of the few who didn’t move in the circles of Westmount, Rockcliffe, or Rosedale. He was a radio reporter who made good, a poor boy from PEI who worked the scrums, rather than sat in a paneled office. He’s a chubby fellow. He put no distance between himself and his colleagues.

Duffy was one of the few Hill TV journalists who wasn’t stuck-up. He was also one of the hardest-working members of the press gallery, often putting in 12-hour days. I suspect there’s an element of snobbery here, and that familiarity has bred contempt.

Since his appointment, he’s worked very hard on behalf of his party, doing much of the work that an elected MP might perform. He lives in PEI in the summer when the Senate is not sitting, or he’s out on the road stumping for the Tories. He’s one of the very few senators whose names are known to the general public.

Few senators work that hard. Doyle of the Globe did, as head of the Senate’s legal affairs committee. Fraser worked on a study of the Canadian media that came to the startling conclusion that Conrad Black was bad for the business. Frum is invisible, as was Kennedy (though, to be fair, her term lasted just a couple of years).

Now, the Senate has lots of problems and may well deserve to be scrapped or drastically reformed. But I would not lay the blame for that at the feet of Mike Duffy.

And I have a bit of an understanding, I think, of Duffy’s rationale for billing for his Ottawa home. When Duffy was a TV reporter, he had a house in Ottawa and a cottage in PEI. When he was appointed to the Senate at the beginning of 2009, he was required to have a residence there.

So Duffy winterized the cottage and spent thousands of dollars to make it into a modest house. He has to pay extra utilities and property taxes because the place – which I’ve visited – is now a real house, not just a cottage. So, over all, he spends more money on housing because he’s a member of the Senate. He billed the Senate for his housing allowance, which is supposed to be spent on accommodation in the capital.

The controversy over that billing has been fuelled by leaks from the Liberal government of PEI, which says Duffy does not have a provincial health card and does not qualify for the property tax break that’s given to people who live on the island for 183 consecutive days a year.

But that makes sense to me. Duffy is supposed to be in Ottawa from late September until late June for Senate sittings. So he’s not likely to be in PEI six months of the year. And because he does spend most of his time in Ontario, it makes sense that he did not switch his health card to PEI. If he’s going to get sick, the math suggests it will be here.

I am not arguing that Duffy scrupulously followed the rules or that he should collect the full $900 per month housing allowance. I would have advised him to sell his Ottawa house, buy a house in Charlottetown, and rent a condo here, if he wanted the allowance. (Plus it probably would have been a great investment, since the money from his Kanata home would have bought him a great place on the Island.)

But I think the reporters tracking Duffy doth protest too much. I’m not sure how this will play out, but it’s pretty clear that Stevie Cameron was about as wrong as she could be.