It is in the finest traditions of the state to punish harshly those on the periphery of a thing while the main players skate.
I think here of how Ontario went after both an author (Stephen Williams) and a lawyer (Ken Murray) who were on the fringes of the sordid Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka murder case, while at the same time treating Homolka as the delicate flower-cum-victim of abuse she never was.
Williams, who wrote two books eviscerating the government for its conduct of the Homolka file, was prosecuted both civilly and criminally in an attempt to decimate him; Murray was charged with child pornography offences, later dropped, in an effort to blacken his good name.
Yet that same government was unable to muster the political will to go after Homolka with anything approaching the same vigour.
And now this — the news from federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson that Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright breached the federal Conflict of Interest Act when he acted to repay Senator Mike Duffy’s questionable expenses.
There is a difference here of course, in that Dawson is not part of government, but rather its independent ethics watchdog.
But she’s been on the job since 2007, and before that was an associate deputy minister and had, as her bio notes, “a long career with the government of Canada.” She’s part of the official furniture, in the way that those who stay in Ottawa forever often become, and some of them come to consider themselves the unofficial guardians of what’s good and right.
So more than a year after Ontario Court Judge Charles Vaillancourt cleared Duffy of all criminal charges and delivered a scathing rebuke of how Harper’s PMO worked, along comes Dawson with her tortured finding.
It has no effect. It carries no penalty. And given that all this evidence emerged at trial, it sheds no light.
But as various media reports noted cheerfully, it serves to remind Canadians of the Dark Years under Harper and manages to deliver a slap in the face to Nigel Wright, a man of enormous dignity and character.
I know none of these players.
Preferring in general those accused of murder and sexual assault to the elected, I have avoided the national capital all these years, wary of what someone smarter than me once described as its greasy transactional feel.
I only ever saw Wright when he testified at the Duffy trial.
But I cannot imagine he ever fit in there.
I cannot imagine official Ottawa ever took him to its ample bosom or that had he been asked, he would have suckled long there.
He is too righteous, too fit, too rich, too bloody smart, too elegant, too well-educated and was then too partisan.
Partisanship is considered A-OK if it means partiality to the right Canadian values, those dearly held by those of big and small L views. Wright was a partisan Conservative and a Harper loyalist. He might as well have been working for the devil.
Indeed, by the time the Duffy scandal fully flowered and his criminal trial began, a federal election was not far away and Harper was seen as the devil. The trial was covered at full throttle, less because of Duffy, more because of Harper.
For the record, what Wright did was as follows.
The then-porcine pink senator from (nudge, nudge) Prince Edward Island was in a pile of trouble.
While he did nothing criminal, he had nonetheless availed himself of all that is on offer at the Ottawa buffet — living expenses for the hardship of living in Ottawa where he’d lived for decades as a broadcaster, per diems or what Wright once described as a subsidy for meals in his own home, trips for him and the wife all over the country, wherever a senator might do business — and remember, a senator is always doing business.
The press was having a field day with it all, in part because of the piggery Duffy had demonstrated, but also because he was Harper’s man, a Harper appointee.
It was his job, as the chief of staff, and it was I bet his calling too, as the unofficial keeper of the Harper flame
Wright just wanted to make it all go away. (I’ve always suspected that what he really wanted was to make Duffy go away, but that was tragically impossible.) It was his job, as the chief of staff, and it was I bet his calling too, as the unofficial keeper of the Harper flame.
So he tried to get the Conservatives in the Senate to play ball, but corralling that gang was like herding cats: No sooner would one agree to do X, than another would do Y, and a third would bitterly complain about the others.
When Duffy’s expenses were estimated at about $32,000, Wright tried to get the Conservative Fund (it means, in essence, the party) to pick up the tab and approached its chair, Senator Irving Gerstein. Wright’s thinking was it would be good for the party, good for Harper and, albeit an unhappy byproduct, even good for Duffy.
When they learned that the amount to be repaid was actually $90,000 — those darned per diems — Wright decided to do it himself. A wealthy man, he had a bank draft prepared and sent to Duffy on the express condition that Duffy pay off his tab that same day.
He wasn’t trying to help Duffy, for God’s sakes. Wright was repelled by him, as indeed any sentient taxpayer might have been.
I was taught the following definition applies to editorial writers, but it seems to suit ethics commissioners, too: Those who come down from the mountain, after the battle is over, to shoot the wounded.