Parliamentary privilege

Some of Mike Duffy’s Senate expenses certainly look suspect, e.g. $8,000 billed for four days in Vancouver visiting family with one business lunch. A so-called principal residence in his home province of PEI that was snowed in for months at a time. Is it fraud? This current court case, which seems mired in minutiae, will eventually rule.

But to understand how we got here, you have to go back to 1971 when Duffy arrived in Ottawa to work as a radio reporter for the CHUM Group. The Parliamentary Press Gallery was the peak of a journalistic career. Some of his elders were in their 60s and there was Duffy, only 25, hanging with the nobility. And what came with the job? A seat in the hot room with free parking, free stationery, free wire service, plus booze and beer served from the illegal blind pig.

Of course, there was also reserved seating to watch the House of Commons, easy access to all MPs and cabinet ministers as well as evening social events where the gossip was always good. Best of all were the subsidized meals in the sixth-floor Parliamentary Restaurant with its vaulted ceilings and steaks hung for weeks until tender. A three-course meal might cost $6. Duffy particularly enjoyed the food and, according to legend, once he finished dinner would put a closed hand near his eye and wiggle his pinky to tell the waiter: “Same again, please.”

As Duffy’s career accelerated from mere radio guy to commentator on CBC then CTV he was mentioned in despatches in the House of Commons, won an ACTRA award and held a fellowship at Duke University. Why, his head must have just kept swelling. A lot of other people in that closed and coddled culture of Parliament Hill became similarly enamoured by the same sense of entitlement – all paid for by the public.

And then, the ultimate: a summons to the Senate with an annual salary of $142,000 plus expenses. Duffy, already one of the best-known broadcasters in the country, became Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s go-to guy for political and party communications. Not bad for a boy whose education consisted of attending public schools in Charlottetown.

No, I don’t condone what Duffy became and what he did. But I do know how it happened. We did it to ourselves.

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