Sunday, February 08, 2009

Harper's Senate puppet

It was during one of my infrequent expeditions to Ottawa that I first encountered Mike Duffy... live. Years ago.

We, a group of servicemen in uniform, had completed the final day of our headquarters temporary duty and had found a place to down a few ales with our more permanently assigned NDHQ brethren. I can't remember the name of the place but I believe it was one of those Elgin Street establishments.

I do remember a sense of awe. The crowd contained a mix of personalities from politicians to journalists, none of whom I had ever seen in person before and all of whom I recognized from the insular distance of national television. But what truly snagged my attention was the fact that the politicians and the journalists seemed to a homogeneous group. There was no apparent division in the patrons, save us in our uniforms which were no less than a neon sign announcing We don't belong amongst this crowd. (Not that we were planning on leaving.) Journalists and politicians were fraternizing in a spirit of good fellowship I did not think existed nor did I think was possible. It suggested that perhaps the adversarial vision provided in 90 second news items of "reporter versus politician" was an act. And chief among those enjoying an apparent comradeship with those whose feet he would hold to the fire of public scrutiny was none other than Mike Duffy.

I might leave it there if it were not for the fact that Duffy took it upon himself to come over and ask what we were all about. We had been warned by our NDHQ hosts that being in uniform in a drinking establishment on a Friday after a certain evening hour might attract some attention - and was frowned upon by those who occupied the upper floors of headquarters. Not that we cared. We were leaving in the morning for our respective coasts and our mission in Ottawa was routine if not benign. We expressed the same to Duffy, who never freed his right hand enough to offer it in either welcome or acknowledgement. He simply dismissed us and returned to those he could comfortably address by their first names. End of encounter.

While not a significant event, it did change how I viewed the relationship between politicians and journalists who faced those politicians. And I did not consider it healthy.

So then Saturday, newly minted Conservative Senator Mike Duffy railed against those he might once have considered his media brethren for continuing to pelt him with questions regarding his "inappropriate" metaphor when commenting on PEI Premier Robert Ghiz and NL Premier Danny Williams.

Once again, Mike Duffy's behaviour provides an awakening.

The relationship between senators and most Canadians is relatively calm. We usually don't hear much from senators. That may be to their detriment at times since the actual work they do is more than a mystery to a large percentage of the population. What isn't a mystery however, is that they are virtually bullet-proof. Regardless of which prime minister submitted their name for appointment, once they take their seat in the red chamber, they are beholden to no single master nor are they bound by party ideology. Even if, as a result of the nature of their arrival in the upper house of Parliament, they can only voice opposition to any particular policy of government, at least it is a voice - for the country.

Whenever I start to lean in favour of an elected, (and thus much more powerful Senate), something happens to shake that inclination. This time it was the tone and meaning of Mike Duffy's maiden speech in the Senate and his subsequent snapping at the hands of those who are pressing him on its content.

What Duffy demonstrated is what we could expect from elected senators: An endless stream of partisan diarrhea acting as the mouthpiece for their party leader because the only way they would get there is by being an active supporter of a particular party.

What Duffy hasn't gathered in is that the substantial shield he enjoys from his Senate seat protects him from the likes of Harper - not the Canadian public. The whole idea is that a senator rises above the partisan fray - not joins it.

In that Duffy's presence in the Senate is yet another reminder of Harper's broken promises is bad enough. To re-emphasize that fact by mouthing Harper's words and behaviour, issuing insults and creating division suggests that Duffy is no more qualified to engage in sober second judgement than he was to critically question the powerful as an advocate of the fourth estate.

You will now go read Pretty Shaved Ape, for none has said it all better than he.

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