OTTAWA – If 2014 was the year of Mike Duffy, then 2015 could be called Mike Duffy 2: Judgment Day.
The suspended former Conservative senator’s fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial gets underway next spring.
READ MORE: Duffy trial to start spring 2015
For 41 days or so, the one-time boisterous TV host will hold court at a courthouse in downtown Ottawa – not far from Parliament Hill.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, is expected to take the stand, as are a handful of Conservative senators, RCMP officers and maybe even Harper himself.
The trial is one of several key events set to shake up the political landscape next year.
There’s also some other political courtroom dramas and the matter of the auditor general’s report on Senate expenses, due in early 2015.
Oh – and did we mention it’s an election year?
As the ruling Conservatives enter their ninth year of power, the future of Harper is also at stake.
Will he stay on as leader if he loses his coveted majority? How much impact, if any, will the Duffy trial have? And how will the public react to the Conservatives’ balanced budget with promised goodies a year away?
Experts agree: it’s on.
“We’re going to have an unusually long and early campaign season. In some ways, it’s begun,” says Nelson Wiseman, an associate professor of Canadian government at the University of Toronto.
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said he believes Harper will stick around – at least until the fall election.
“I don’t think he’s retiring on his own,” says Bratt.
“This isn’t a guy like (former prime minister Brian) Mulroney who did his nine years and went back to the private sector to make a ton of money. That’s never been a driving force of Harper. Harper reminds me a lot more of Jean Chretien in that respect. I mean they almost had to carry Chretien out of Parliament.”
And yet, we should always know that nothing is for certain.
“There are always unexpected things in politics,” says Wiseman.
“Who would have ever thought that we would have two soldiers killed within a few days, including some guy on a rampage through Parliament?”
Here we take a look at the year ahead in Canadian politics – at least the one we can predict.
A fall election. Or maybe it’s spring.
There’s no question it’s coming, and Harper has said he has no intention of changing the fixed election date of Oct. 19, 2015. Still, anything can happen, and there has been some speculation Harper could step down before the fall, or call an early election in the spring. According to Bratt, Harper doesn’t have anything else to do: “He’s got no other big interests and he likes the job, and he’s still young.” Insiders have indicated the election date won’t change, arguing that power is much easier to give up than to achieve. So why go early?
Mike Duffy takes on the PMO
Mike Duffy, that’s why. The former Conservative star has already attacked his former party in the Senate (“wait, there’s more!), and when his trial begins on April 7, more metaphorical bullets are expected to fly. Just how much Harper knew about the deal with Wright to pay off Duffy’s $90,000 expenses, and why Duffy claimed Senate expenses while campaigning for the Conservatives, could be answered at trial. “It is possible that it could be greatly damaging to Harper, even if Harper himself is not directly implicated,” says Bratt. Even if there’s no smoking gun, the lengthy trial – there are 31 charges after all – is sure to keep the Prime Minister’s Office in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Watch: Duffy’s lawyer says trial is not ‘political’
Other trials: not just Duffy
And it’s not just Duffy set to go to court. At least two other senators, former Conservative Patrick Brazeau and retired Liberal Mac Harb, respectively, will head to trial for their fraud cases in the summer, while former Conservative Pamela Wallin is still under RCMP investigation. There is also ex-MP Dean Deal Mastro’s election fraud case, as well as former Conservative staffer Michael Sona, who has appealed his robocalls conviction. It’s almost as if a reporter could make a living covering these things.
The Senate audit
Since 2013, Auditor General Michael Ferguson and his team have combed over more than 100 senators’ expenses from the past two years. Will they find more criminal wrongdoing, or simply confusion over the process for submitting claims, as several senators under fire have claimed? With some senators hesitant to provide information, it is sure to be an explosive report. Will the public ever get a straight answer about what constitutes Senate business? Hint: no vacations to Hawaii allowed.
Harper stays, NDP-Liberals unite?
The Conservatives are set to deliver a balanced budget this spring, just in time for Canadians to go to the polls. And while the plummeting price of oil may put a damper on things, analysts say it won’t have a huge impact on the government. “They could have had a balanced budget this year had they chosen to, but it wasn’t an election year. And so whether the budget surplus is small, whether it’s big, the political significance is they have a surplus and that’s going to be a selling feature,” says Bratt. The question is, what happens if Harper loses his majority? If the Conservatives retreat to minority territory, Wiseman says it’s not impossible for the opposition parties to form an “accord” government – not a coalition, but a party fronted by either the Liberals or NDP making a series of concessions to the other. “That will allow each party to claim that they’re not deserting their principles,” he says. And whether Harper would stay in politics as opposition leader remains the essential question of 2015.
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