Canadians didn’t really know Mike Duffy

Will a scandal involving Canada’s most recognised news anchor bring down the prime minister?

Suspended Senator Mike Duffy leaves the Ontario Court of Justice, in Ottawa [REUTERS]
Suspended Senator Mike Duffy leaves the Ontario Court of Justice, in Ottawa [REUTERS]

For all its big skies, Canada has very few big stars.

True, internationally, we can lay claim to Justin Bieber, although millions of us would rather not.  

On the home front, we settle for lesser lights. It’s usually our network news anchors who get the best tables, the biggest speaker fees and, of course, the most attention and adulation.

Which brings us to Mike Duffy, now more commonly known as “the disgraced Senator Mike Duffy”.

Once he enjoyed enormous influence and celebrity.

And then the TV and political star imploded.

Love affair with camera

A high school dropout from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Duffy’s love affair with the camera quickly catapulted him from local radio to the CBC’s Parliament Hill bureau. There, as the public broadcaster’s internal research in the early 1980s revealed, he became the most recognisable reporter on the nightly news.

Man trying to prove he’s Canadian

His star quality came not from square-jawed anchor good looks but from his non-telegenic round face and rotund body for which he compensated with a trademark walk into the camera, a dramatic delivery and an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

He flirted with the lens – and with the viewers.

So well-known was he that, in 1988 when CBC was about to launch an all-news channel, Baton Broadcasting, the largest affiliate of the privately-owned CTV, lured him away to front an hour-long political show. Baton offered big bucks, bespoke tailoring, and an expense account. The star was living the high life, and was very much on “the inside” in Ottawa. Hill watchers would joke that “Old Duff” was angling for a spot in Canada’s Upper Chamber, the Senate, to which one is not elected but appointed.

The Senate is a bone of contention in Canadian politics. Party leaders promise to reform it, or even abolish it, once they’re in power. Instead, they end up rewarding their political cronies and contributors with sinecures, complete with millions in pay and pensions.

‘Questionable expense claims’

Just last week, Canadians were outraged to learn that some 40 sitting and retired senators were filing “questionable expense claims”, including one totalling more than $100,000. The independently wealthy Senator Nancy Ruth, when asked by reporters about charging taxpayers for a restaurant breakfast instead of eating the freebie on her flight, snapped: “If you want ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers, have it.”

Word got out that, although Duffy had been making his home in Ottawa for decades, he'd allegedly expensed as much as $82,000 towards its maintenance as befitting a senator from PEI where, supposedly, his 'primary' residence was situated.

That didn’t go down well with Canadians who last month told the pollsters from the Angus Reid Institute that the Senate had to be reformed (45 percent) or it had to go (41 percent.)

Indeed, in 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, before he won a majority government, groused that Senators “warm their seats” and that the institution “must either change or – like the old upper houses of our provinces – vanish”.

And then he would go on to name – at least so far – 59 Senators of his own.

In 2008, he appointed Mike Duffy. This in the wake of nationwide controversy over his edit of an interview with then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion which many believed cost him the election. Even the broadcast industry’s own self-regulating body deemed it “not fair, balanced, or even handed.”

To Harper, Duffy was a draw, and the prime minister made use of his star power to raise funds, rally the troops and even record personalised video greetings to contributors.

Then, over the winter of 2012-2013, word got out that, although Duffy had been making his home in Ottawa for decades, he’d allegedly expensed as much as $82,000 towards its maintenance as befitting a Senator from PEI where, supposedly, his “primary” residence was situated. Taxpayer funds were also apparently funnelled towards, among other people, a personal trainer, a make-up artist and a speechwriter.

‘Public bleeding’

The country erupted. Harper claimed he knew nothing about any of it, although a number of operatives in his office were reportedly involved in making the scandal go away. In fact, in the spring of 2013, one of his chief aides, Nigel Wright, paid $90,000 of his own funds to stem the government’s “public bleeding” over the scandal.

And now all eyes are on Duffy again. The Ottawa courthouse is crammed with dozens of members of the media covering his trial. He faces 31 charges related to fraud, bribery and breach of trust, all arising from the expenses and the $90,000 payoff.

But what the press pack is baying for is Harper’s blood, because few believe that he was ignorant of what his office and anointed Senator were up to. However, at a news conference on the other end of Canada on Tuesday, the day the 40-day Duffy trial opened, Harper confidently announced: “I had no knowledge of these things and will not be called as a witness.”

As for Duffy, the centre of this political circus, he is holding his silver tongue, letting his ace criminal lawyer and 562 carefully preserved emails do all the talking.

Like he said when this scandal first broke, touting his long-held and well-respected credibility: “Canadians know Mike Duffy.”

Yes they do.

And they also know Stephen Harper.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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