Mike Duffy retiring from Senate at age 75

·4 min read
Mike Duffy was a successful broadcaster before he was appointed to the Senate in 2009. (Chris Wattie/Reuters - image credit)
Mike Duffy was a successful broadcaster before he was appointed to the Senate in 2009. (Chris Wattie/Reuters - image credit)

At the height of the Senate expenses scandal in 2013, there were calls even from within Mike Duffy's former party, the Conservative Party of Canada, for him to resign from the Senate.

But the self-proclaimed "senator from Cavendish" stuck it out, lasting more than 12 years in the upper chamber until his mandatory retirement on his 75th birthday, Thursday, May 27, 2021.

In a farewell address he gave to the Senate almost a month before his retirement, Duffy said it was "an honour to be called here to the Senate to public service."

Duffy said he wouldn't "dwell on the events of 2013; they're chronicled in Hansard."

But he wanted to talk about the future of the Senate.

"The Senate faces serious challenges that threaten its very existence," he told the chamber, speaking via remote video link.

Saying that the Senate is unelected and "unaccountable to anyone other than itself," Duffy said "reform-minded senators are learning that making change here is not easy."

Prompted change

But part of Duffy's legacy in the chamber is that he prompted change, according to UPEI political scientist Don Desserud.

"I'm not going to suggest this was deliberate on his behalf, but a lot of what we've seen now with Senate reform came directly from those events" related to the Senate expenses scandal involving Duffy along with senators Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb.

Duffy ended up facing 31 criminal charges after it was revealed he received a cheque for $90,000 from Stephen Harper's chief of staff Nigel Wright, meant to compensate Duffy for repaying living expenses he had claimed.

Duffy was claiming per diem expenses while living at his home in Kanata, Ontario, saying his cottage in Cavendish was his primary residence.

Mike Duffy had claimed his cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I., as his primary residence, allowing him to claim a per diem from the Senate.
Mike Duffy had claimed his cottage in Cavendish, P.E.I., as his primary residence, allowing him to claim a per diem from the Senate.(CBC)

Duffy said Senate expense forms were unclear, and in 2016 he was cleared of all charges, with Justice Charles Vaillancourt criticizing the machinations of the Prime Minister's Office in his decision.

"The political, covert, relentless unfolding of events is mind-boggling and shocking," he said, portraying Duffy as an unwilling partner in a scheme to cover questionable expenses — even though those expenses, he said, were likely legitimate.

Desserud said in 40 years of his own calling for Senate reform, first as a student of political science and then as a professor, never have more changes come about than in the wake of the expenses scandal.

"Changes in the way the Senate operates, their visibility, the appointment process…. People can apply to be a senator, there's a vetting process, there's a committee that makes recommendations."

Senate appointments 'more representative of the country'

Desserud said people now put forward to the Senate "do not come from the standard political backgrounds that you would normally see. You know, the retired premiers, or the retired cabinet ministers."

He said the changes make the Senate "a little more representative of the country as a whole," and said the reforms, brought in by the Trudeau government, will be difficult to undo.

"They've now become part of the deal, and I suspect they'll be there for awhile."

Dan Leger, a former journalist who wrote a book on the Duffy affair, said there's no question the Senate expenses scandal, and Duffy's role in it, played a role in pushing the Senate toward reform, and helped bring down Stephen Harper's government as well.

But he said Duffy also "pulled another brick out of the foundation of public support for the Senate."

'Mixed legacy'

Ultimately, Leger said Duffy's will be "a mixed legacy."

"He was a very successful broadcaster, a guy who worked his way to the top of our business through his own hard work.... He was involved in covering some of the main stories of the last two generations, in a way. But his record in the Senate is what people, unfortunately, I think are going to remember him for."

As for appointing Duffy's successor to represent P.E.I. in the Senate — and P.E.I. will have another vacancy to contend with in March of 2022, when Diane Griffin turns 75 — the PMO will follow the process that was brought in as a response to the Senate expenses scandal.

A spokesperson for the Privy Council Office in Ottawa said the federal government will establish an independent advisory board to go over applications from those interested in the position.

"Canadians may apply for appointment to the Senate at any time through an open application process based on transparent, merit-based criteria and requirements under Canada's constitution," the spokesperson said.

No timeline was put forward for when a new senator might be appointed.

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