Logic is a funny thing: things that seem like they are diametrically opposed statements — such that, if one is true, the other must be false — can turn out to be nothing of the kind.
Two men look into a box: one says, “I see a brown cat.” The other says, “There is no cat: it’s a monkey.”
Even if the animal in the box is a monkey, both of the statements can be true, even if one sees a cat and the other knows it’s a monkey.
And that takes us to Mike Duffy, the Senate and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Duffy says he sees a conspiracy to force him to pay back money to the Senate, a tangled web of deceit, threats and dishonesty.
Harper’s office says very little, beyond saying there’s nothing new to the story, and everything has been said already.
There are some startling implications. For one, there are laws agains paying sitting politicians money to do or not do things. Even during AdScam and the Liberals, no one was saying Jean Chrétien sat in the room while talk of payments was bantered back and forth.
But at the moment, there exists a little space where both sets of comments — Duffy’s and Harper’s office — can be technically true, both of them carefully torqued to go as far as possible into the land where you couldn’t say for sure that you were lied to, but where you could certainly feel that you were deliberately misled.
The problem is that the crux of the event happened in a room with just three people in it: the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, along with Harper and Duffy.
Duffy says he was threatened with being tossed from the Senate if he didn’t pay back expenses, and that Prime Minister Harper said that even though Duffy’s expenses were legitimate, they couldn’t be explained to the Conservative party’s political base.
Wright, Duffy says, then offered to write a cheque to cover the $90,000 involved. Harper simply says he told Duffy to pay the money back. Both statements could be true, especially if Harper was simply trimming salient elements from his recollection of the discussion.
In other places in his remarkable diatribe in the Senate, Duffy outlined how other pressures were brought to bear on him, and in those cases, there may well be some corroborating evidence.
It’s surprising, in fact, that someone as cagey and experienced as Duffy didn’t have the presence of mind to tape phone calls from Conservatives like Senate House Leader Marjory LeBreton. He did, however, have the presence of mind to have his wife and sister listen in on calls from Conservative operatives during which Duffy said he was threatened.
It will be interesting to see where that goes — someone as media-astute as Duffy might be saving a tape for the very moment that someone calls him a liar.
It doesn’t, however, address the problems posed by the Wright-Harper-Duffy meeting. Trapping LeBreton only offers guilt by association.
And those are significant problems. If all we have is differing weasel-worded versions, we’re not going to get very far. The air will never be cleared, and we’ll be left with a collection of disturbing doubts about the ethics of a number of members of government and their staff.
It’s time for something beyond a simple he-said/she-said, and the very occasional times where a prime minister seems to be willing to pop up in question period, say very little, and sit back down again.
These are fundamental issues at play here: if a sitting prime minister really did take part in an arrangement to pay money to a senator, then that is something that voters have a right to know about.
There’s really only one clear track here, and it’s a lesson that can be taken from the Liberals and AdScam as well: we’re not likely to get straight and honest answers to what happened behind closed Conservative doors without having everyone involved speaking under oath.
There’s a point at which a debate over who’s finetuning the truth the most becomes useless. These are serious matters, and they require serious examination.
Trouble is, there’s no one who has the power to start a public inquiry who’s likely to want to take that step.
Russell Wangersky is editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.