Some might argue that the dollars misspent by senators are just a drop in the money bucket, and not worth the cost of audits and courts. Others counter that the principles at stake far outweigh the price tag of the investigation.

Lessons from Mike Duffy

Does “always did it this way” make it right?

Canadian senator Mike Duffy couldn’t have imagined the recent twists and turns his life has taken. His political metamorphosis from butterfly to caterpillar could hardly have been more dramatic!

What happened? And why? Until Duffy’s autobiography provides his version of the facts, the clues are coming from the news wires. How he endeared himself to his political cronies while bending the rules. How he kept meticulous notes of his deeds and misdeeds. And how he knows more, but is waiting for the right moment to spill the beans.

As the story of the senator’s financial transgressions slowly winds its way through the courts, some bigger questions have arisen. It appears the rules governing senator expenses are not really rules. Suggestions maybe, but definitely not rules as you and I understand the word.

Perhaps Canada’s first senators really were stellar where ethics and money were concerned, but we’ll never know. It seems senator accountability has never been obligatory. And the little that may have been required of them was kept safe within the hallowed senate halls. Until now!

The recent audit of many senator expense accounts reveals that Duffy has a lot of company. That’s not surprising when the shades of grey embedded in the rules practically invited diverse, sometimes creative, interpretations.

Some might argue that the dollars misspent by senators are just a drop in the money bucket, and not worth the cost of audits and courts. Others counter that the principles at stake far outweigh the price tag of the investigation.

On a corruption scale, Canada compares favourably with the rest of the world. A “world corruption map” produced annually by Transparency International rates Canada as 10th out of 175 countries.

On the face of it, that sounds great! Canada’s yellow colour contrasts sharply with the bright reds in most of the world. But should that provide any comfort? Realistically, how can Canadians withstand a world saturated with corruption? New financial rules in the senate would definitely help, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

If there were more transparency on Parliament Hill, would it have been necessary to drag Duffy’s case through the courts? Likely not, but if this is what it takes to motivate positive change, all Canadians should be grateful.

Should Senator Duffy be given a hero’s crown or the boot? Think about it! He has become a lightning rod, giving senators a unique opportunity to improve their financial act and regain trust. Let’s hope they don’t squander it. And let’s make sure the political leaders we elect understand that substantive change is needed.

There are also lessons much closer to home. The next time you complete your income tax return, make sure you are not part of the problem. Not reporting income or exaggerating expenses affects the same government coffers Duffy took advantage of. Keeping Canada from sinking to Third World status begins with you. Hero or not, consider hanging a picture of the senator prominently in your office as a reminder!

Henry Friesen is a chartered accountant near Winnipeg who deals with many “Duffy type” questions.

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About the author

Henry Friesen is a chartered accountant who lives in a small town near Winnipeg, Manitoba.