This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 16, 2013
No one recalls exactly when Mike Duffy got the nickname “the Senator”—within a couple of years of his 1972 arrival on Parliament Hill as a chubby cub reporter for the CHUM radio group is the best guess. The mock honorific had certainly stuck by the time he made the transition to CBC television in 1977. And by the mid-1980s, when he was the biggest name in Ottawa—vastly more popular than the politicians he covered—it wasn’t really a joke anymore. Mike knew everyone. And everyone knew he wanted a seat in the red chamber.
Case in point: Down in the CBC’s Toronto archives, there’s a scratchy old Betamax of a 1985 episode of Gzowski & Company in which one Canadian broadcasting icon lionizes another. It begins with Peter Gzowski describing his colleague as being “a little rounder and shorter than the Peace Tower,” and then cuts to the awkward looking Mutt and Jeff pair standing among a crowd of tourists in front of the West Block. A big black Cadillac pulls up and out jumps Brian Mulroney, all grins and Guccis. Forewarned or not, Canada’s 18th prime minister has a ready answer when asked if there’s anything he wants to say about Mike Duffy. “I’ve been trying, as you know, to persuade (him) to accept a senatorship for some years and he turned it down flat,” Mulroney chuckles, then pauses for the punchline. “It’s the speakership of the Senate or nothing at all! These guys from P.E.I. . . . they know what to hang out for.”
Duffy’s unabashed campaign to get himself elevated to a job that he once famously labelled as the “taskless thanks,” was the stuff of legend—and a reliable source of mirth—on the Hill for decades. “Every time he shakes my hand, he takes my pulse,” the late Heath Macquarrie, then a Tory senator for P.E.I. quipped at a charity dinner back in 1992. “Mr. Chrétien once told me that every time Mike saw him in the corridor he’d yell out, ‘Prime Minister, I’m ready! I’m ready!’ ” says Eddie Goldenberg, a former Liberal chief of staff.
But with his home province having just four representatives in the Upper Chamber, and the retirement age for senators set at 75, opportunities were few and far between. The Liberals kicked his tires at least once. Shawn Murphy, the former Grit MP for Charlottetown allows that it was far enough along that he was asked his opinion on the matter. “I quickly made the point that he couldn’t be considered as an Islander.” Everybody there at least knew that Duffy hadn’t lived on P.E.I. since the mid-1960s. Murphy won’t say who was inquiring, however. Paul Martin’s backers swear it was Chrétien’s near mistake, and vice versa. It might well have been both prime ministers. Although there’s no partisan profit in copping to it now.
That’s because the expense scandal that threatens to overwhelm Canada’s Senate has, so far, taken on a distinctly Tory hue. Three of the four senators currently under RCMP investigation—Duffy, his fellow TV journalist Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau—were appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in late 2008, and until recently sat as Conservatives. (The fourth, Liberal-cum-Independent Mac Harb, who “retired” late last month, thereby preserving his $123,000-a-year pension, was named by Jean Chrétien in 2003.) And it was the Tories who were caught out trying to save one of their own, toning down the language in a Senate Board of Internal Economy report on Duffy, and then paying back more than $90,000 he had improperly claimed for housing and living allowances, via a personal cheque from Nigel Wright, Harper’s then chief of staff.
Duffy hasn’t been seen much in public lately. After Parliament recessed in the spring, he and his wife withdrew to the cottage near Cavendish, P.E.I., that he had been wrongly claiming as his primary residence for years. On his lawyer’s advice, he is declining all interview requests, including Maclean’s. And when reporters have made the trek out to 10 Friendly Lane to seek comment in person, the senator has called in the police to run them off the property.
But he’s hardly been forgotten. “Stuff the Duff” T-shirts have been selling briskly on the Island this summer and for a while, a Charlottetown radio station was running a “Do ya a Duffy” promo, paying off the debts of lucky callers. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation invested $4,700 in a custom-made 10-m-tall inflatable Duffy balloon—one hand clutching a briefcase overflowing with $20 bills, the other one outstretched for more—and has taken it on the road to promote Senate reform.
The proudest day of Michael Dennis Duffy’s life may well have been January 26, 2009, when senator Wilbert Keon, his friend and heart surgeon, and government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton, once Brian Mulroney’s appointments director and the focus of his lobbying efforts, conducted him to the Speaker for his official swearing in. “It is not a position I sought,” Duffy announced to laughter in his maiden speech two days later, “but it is a challenge that I accept with enthusiasm.” After more than three decades of trying, he’d at last been admitted to the club. Now four years later, it looks like he might be the excuse to finally bring the party to an end.
Since the Senate expense scandal started unravelling late last November, Stephen Harper has been absorbing a pounding in the press and the opinion polls. And none of his efforts to contain the damage—throwing his golden-boy chief of staff over the side, removing the leader of the Senate from cabinet, promising to at long last reform the red chamber—seem to be having much of an effect. It appears that the country’s control-freak-in-chief has at last met his match, someone with 40 years of experience on the Hill, a deep cache of secrets and an axe to grind. Mike Duffy might be on his way out, but he’s not going quietly.
It was the kind of ambition that made a 12-year-old stick out. Not just to be a journalist, but to be a radio reporter on “the Hill.” “The rest of us didn’t know what the damn word meant,” says Charley McMillan, who grew up three blocks over from Mike Duffy, in one of the nicer precincts of Charlottetown. This might be an exaggeration: politics run deep on Prince Edward Island. McMillan ultimately found his own way to Ottawa as a senior policy adviser to Brian Mulroney. His twin brother, Tom, became the federal environment minister, and their father, a doctor, organized John Diefenbaker’s P.E.I. campaigns. But the point is that Mike was different. He didn’t live to play hockey like the rest of them. He was more interested in how people broadcast it.
A keen ham-radio enthusiast, the young Duffy was forever in search of a bigger audience. The early audition tapes were made on the McMillan family’s living room reel-to-reel with a borrowed microphone. By the time he was 15, in 1961, Duffy had a part-time gig hosting a Saturday afternoon “teen dance party” show on CFCY-TV, the playlist drawn from his own extensive record collection. And the teen was proving he also had a reporter’s instincts on the company’s sister radio station. McMillan recalls his friend finding himself inside the local Eaton’s store during a bomb scare, and phoning in a live report rather than evacuating the building with everyone else.
Duffy, the eldest of five kids born to Wilfrid, a Navy vet turned provincial civil servant, and Lillian, a homemaker, wasn’t much of a student. After high school, he made what he once described as a “token effort” to study humanities at St. Dunstan’s College in Charlottetown. But already hip deep in the news business—he’d also been covering high school and university sports on the Island for Canadian Press—he soon quit to take a starter position at the local paper, The Guardian. It paid $30 a week.
In 1964, he moved off-Island for a modest raise and a job reading the news at a small AM station in Amherst, N.S. Getting to the Hill remained his true goal, however. Politics had always held a fascination for him, and there was a proud family link: his paternal grandfather Gavin had been a Liberal MLA, and for a time, speaker of the P.E.I. assembly. After a year of cold calls, Duffy managed to land a gig as an announcer at CKOY in Ottawa. But he was quickly judged to be not quite ready for the big time. The news director, unimpressed by Duffy’s high-pitched voice, sent him packing after just a week, with the suggestion that he might be better suited to a career selling ties in a department store. Instead, he slunk back to his old job in Amherst.
The setback only seemed to make Duffy more determined to find a way into the world of Canadian politics. During the 1965 federal election, Bob Coates, the local Tory MP, helped him land his first big interview—a sit-down with John Diefenbaker, the Opposition leader, as his campaign train rattled through Nova Scotia. Two years later, while working for a Halifax radio station, Duffy took a week’s vacation and paid his own way to Toronto to cover the convention that made Robert Stanfield the leader of the Progressive Conservatives.
It wasn’t until 1969 that he got another crack at the big media markets of central Canada. After sending out letters to virtually every outlet west of the New Brunswick border, Duffy landed a behind-the-scenes job at CFCF-TV in Montreal, working the assignment desk. He helped shape the coverage of lots of juicy stories—bank robberies, a police strike, the FLQ crisis—but wasn’t happy letting other people tell them. So in 1971, newly married to Nancy, a girl he had met in Halifax, Duffy took a radio job covering Ottawa City Hall, at a $5,000-a-year pay cut. “He’d analyzed the situation and figured out that he had a much better chance of getting into the press gallery from there than Montreal,” says Al Holman, an early colleague at the Guardian , and later on the Hill as a CBC Radio reporter. Duffy was right. Within a year, he was covering Parliament full-time.
It turned out to be a natural pairing. The gregarious Maritimer soon seemed to know—and be on good terms with—everyone in town. “You’d hear him coming down the hallway, greeting all the secretaries, political aides and security guards by their first name,” recalls Brian Stewart, the long-time CBC Television correspondent. They soon became fast friends. “He was so incredibly at home in that world. And he had an enthusiasm that was contagious.”
The stories that flowed from all those connections—everything from scoops on the consumer price index to tales of insider intrigue—earned Duffy the attention of the CBC and a job as one of their national radio reporters. He briefly branched out, trying his hand at the foreign correspondent thing and winning praise for his coverage of the fall of Saigon in 1975. But it was apparent to all involved that Ottawa was where he really belonged. And in 1977, he made the jump to TV as a political specialist for The National.
On the small screen, Duffy couldn’t help but stand out. “He was big. He was going bald. He didn’t look like a normal TV reporter of that era,” says Peter Mansbridge, then a junior member of the CBC’s Hill crew, now the network’s chief anchor, who described the norm as “all hair and teeth.” It was a difference that Duffy was rarely allowed to forget. Colleagues often made sport of his dimensions—just five foot six, he has long tipped the scales at more than 250 lb.—and his Falstaffian appetites. Mansbridge recalls a press gallery dinner where someone took footage of Duffy’s signature TV trick—a pause and glance downwards as if he was gathering his thoughts, before gazing back into the camera to deliver his zinger—and spliced it with shots of a cheeseburger lying on the sidewalk. And the politicians could be even more cruel. Val Sears, the long-time Toronto Star bureau chief, has a story about Pierre Trudeau’s campaign train pulling away from a station in the Maritimes as Duffy, who had been busy calling in a radio report, ran huffing and heaving down the track. “C’mon, Mike, you can make it,” the prime minister shouted gleefully from the rear platform. “Faster, faster.”
Still, for all the ribbing, Duffy’s size turned out to be one of the secrets of his success. Viewers seemed to identify with his regular-guy looks, and it soon became a sort of “only in Canada” national point of pride that the CBC eschewed the Ken-doll standards of the big U.S. networks. Chatelaine magazine named him to their annual list of the country’s “sexiest” men, lauding Duffy as a cuddly “sticky bun in a breadstick society.” He took to carrying head shots in his briefcase to oblige the many autograph seekers.
Another factor was his dedication to the cause. Duffy breathed politics as much as any elected official or backroom strategist. In the mornings you could always find him collecting tidbits over breakfast at the Château Laurier’s Grill. At lunchtime, he held court at a table in the Press Club, or the Parliamentary Restaurant. And after ﬁling his report for The National— often some sort of nugget about a pending government decision, a cabinet shufﬂe, or backbench rebellion, painstakingly panned from the streams of gossip—it was time for dinner and drinks at Mama Teresa’s, the Italian joint that was so tied up in Hill life that they exchanged the red-and-white tablecloths for blue-and-white checks whenever power changed from the Liberals to the Tories. “He was a bit of a bon vivant,” says Mansbridge. “And the more popular he got, the more influential he became, the more he enjoyed it.”
Although there was a price for all those extended hours. In the wake of the 1979 campaign, his wife, Nancy, moved to Montreal with their two young children, Miranda and Gavin. A couple of years later they divorced and she and the kids relocated to the West Coast.
Those who knew Duffy back then remember a guy who spent freely, but didn’t seem too hung up on money. “When we were out on campaigns, he was most anxious to always pick up the cheque,” Val Sears recalls. “He loved to be the host.” (Such acts of largesse were well known to be a source of conflict with his bosses at the CBC, but didn’t seem to have any effect on Duffy’s career.)
A bit of a clothes horse—he was always turned out in three-piece suits with matching silk ties and pocket squares—Duffy also had a weakness for Mercedes cars. And for a while, he owned a 10-m Prowler cabin cruiser, named after his daughter. During that era, he was earning a healthy salary—“better than $50,000, less than $100,000,” he told an interviewer in 1982. But as a bachelor, his living arrangements were bare bones—one former colleague remembers his Elgin Street condo as being most notable for the stacks of empty pizza boxes.
There were times when his desire to be in on absolutely everything could lead him astray, however. Al Holman still laughs at the memory of Duffy following the lead of some CBC compatriots and joining a squash club in the early ’80s. The year-long membership came to an end and he still hadn’t darkened the door. So Duffy lobbied for an extension, and the same thing happened again.
The Mike Duffy that Peter Gzowski captured in his half-hour TV profile in 1985 was near the height of his fame. Nonetheless, there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. In an era where Canadian journalism was driven by big policy stories—the endless constitutional battles, acid rain and free trade—the CBC brass was emphasizing analysis more than process. And more often than not, Duffy found his pieces buried deep in the newscast, or was relegated to producing the gossipy “Notebook” items that the public loved, but he was growing to resent. His friends in the CBC’s Ottawa bureau were moving up the ladder—Brian Stewart took a post as the London correspondent, two other colleagues made the jump to the big U.S. networks, Mansbridge was named the anchor-apparent to Knowlton Nash—while Duffy’s career seemed to have stalled. Stewart says “the Senator” was always more sensitive than people realized. He recalls showing Duffy footage of the 1984 Ethiopian famine—Stewart was the first Westerner to report on the crisis—when he came to visit in London. “He just dissolved into tears. More than anyone I had ever shown it to. He had a really soft heart.”
A darker side of Duffy was also emerging. His CBC bosses had to contend with frequent complaints from camera operators, soundmen and editors about their star’s rude and insensitive behaviour. In 1986, Globe and Mail journalist John Fraser published Telling Tales, a collection of gossipy sketches of eminent Canadians, in which a thinly disguised Duffy made a cameo appearance as a drunken roué, putting the moves on Jeanne Sauvé, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, and by the time the story appeared, she was the governor general. “Normally a perfect gentleman, on this occasion he was a porcine rake with sweat wreathing his brow,” wrote Fraser. “In close succession, he nestled close to the elegant Speaker, whispered “Jeanne, Jeanne . . . ” in her ear, and placed a pudgy paw firmly on her derrière.” After Duffy threatened a lawsuit, the anecdote was cut from subsequent editions of the book. But to this day, Fraser maintains it was true. “I had five witnesses lined up but my publisher chickened out,” he told Maclean’s . “The irony is, I rather liked Duffy in those days and thought he’d be amused by the tale.
Still, when Duffy announced he was leaving the CBC in the summer of 1988, to host his own Sunday morning current affairs show for Baton Broadcasting, owner of six CTV stations, it was a bombshell. “It was not a happy day around here,” says Peter Mansbridge. “We were losing a franchise player.”
The sense from the newspapers was that the move was long overdue. The Ottawa Citizen produced a breathless blow-by-blow of Baton’s courtship to accompany a feature interview with “Mr. Nice Guy.” But it was the headline in the Windsor Star that proved the most prescient: “The Senator goes centre stage.”
Those who worked with Mike Duffy at CTV quickly learned one rule. His self-bestowed and strongly preferred nickname was “the Old Duff.” You didn’t have to use it, but there was a lot less aggravation if you just gave in. “Senator” would work too. But to slip up and call him by his surname in an email or conference call was to court a blistering response. In the network culture, CTV’s main anchor was always “Lloyd.” Its chief political correspondent was simply “Craig.” And even though the plethora of Mikes on the payroll ruled out first-name recognition, Duffy was damned if the underlings were going to refer to him in a way that didn’t suggest a similar level of familiarity or affection.
The broadcaster’s insecurities had played a big role in his decision to leave the CBC after 14 years. Duffy had never forgotten how John Bassett, the founder of Baton Broadcasting, sent a memo to his troops following the 1983 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, in which he had described him as looking like a “tired old water buffalo.” To be anointed as a political heavyweight by John’s son Doug, the new network president, just five years later, was sweet revenge. And Duffy had done nothing to dampen speculation in the press that his three-year contract was worth somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000—a figure that would have made him one of the highest-paid personalities in Canadian television. (The reality, revealed in a tax court case a few years later, was that the deal was worth a total of $343,000, including $20,000 in clothing allowances. Duffy had made some inventive attempts to lower his tax burden through talent fees paid to his personal company, and claims that his “costumes” were property of the network. Revenue Canada disagreed and presented him with a bill for $21,000.)
The show, dubbed Sunday Edition , premiered in October 1988, but it never quite lived up to its lofty ambition of being the Canadian answer to Meet the Press. Duffy’s guests rarely made headlines. And the audience numbers were respectable, but not overwhelming. Baton and CTV found other platforms for their star, adding a “diary” segment, just like the ones he used to do for the CBC, to its magazine show W5. Although when there was big political news, Duffy soon learned that he was further down the network depth chart that he had envisioned. At the NDP leadership convention in 1989, Lloyd Robertson and Craig Oliver were up in the booth, and he was out on the floor interviewing Dave Barrett’s 13-year-old grandson.
CTV folks won’t talk on the record about Duffy’s time there—they’ve been warned not to. (When Don Martin, the host of Powerplay, broke ranks this past May, going live-to-air with a rant about his former friend and colleague being a “Conservative shill” and “faker,” the segment was quickly pulled off the CTV website and edited out of rebroadcasts.) But it’s no secret that it wasn’t a happy marriage. Even after Sunday Edition was cancelled in 1999, and Duffy was given a five-day-a-week panel show on CTV’s News Channel, he chafed at the way he was being used. And he complained to anyone who would listen that Oliver was using his close friendship with Robertson to keep him off CTV’s nightly network newscast.
Duffy’s health issues also conspired to take some of the bounce out of his step. In 1989, he was diagnosed with diabetes and required intestinal surgery. (The silver lining was a romance with Heather Collins, the home care nurse assigned to take care of him during his recovery, who eventually became his wife.) In the spring of 1992, he suffered a mild heart attack as he prepared to go to air for a live report on yet another round of constitutional bickering. (It was the week before his scheduled wedding, so he and Collins ended up tying the knot in front of 20 guests in his hospital room at the Ottawa Heart Institute.) And in 2007, there was emergency surgery to remove an almost total blockage of his main artery.
There was also a growing perception that Duffy was no longer the fun and freewheeling type who had charmed Ottawa—and the entire country—back in the ’70s and ’80s. “The Senator,” “Beaver” Mansbridge and “Scoop” Stewart were once the tightest of chums. Duffy had served as a best man at Mansbridge’s marriage to his first wife, fellow CBC anchor Wendy Mesley. And he set Stewart up with his wife, Tina Srebotnjak, the former host of Midday. But within a few years of him changing networks, the three no longer talked. On the air, and in his weekly columns for the Sun chain, Duffy had formed a habit of taking potshots at his former employer and it didn’t sit well. “The CBC had made him a national figure. It just felt like a betrayal,” says Mansbridge, who still has a picture of he and his former friend yukking it up at the 1984 Liberal leadership convention up on his office wall. “He seemed to settle into a more ideological role,” says Stewart. “He became a new Duffy.”
The CTV broadcaster emerged as a favourite target of Frank , the bi-weekly humour and gossip magazine. They needled him about his small audience, and skewered his ego in a regular photo comic called “the Puffster.” In 1991, they named him their “Eyesore of the Year.” Four years of torment later, after the magazine ran a cover proclaiming “Mike Duffy is a big fat liar”—based on their discovery that he was visiting a North Carolina weight-reduction centre, rather than speaking at Duke University as he was telling people—he sued. Duffy eventually won an apology and a $30,000 out-of-court settlement, but at an even greater cost to his regular-guy reputation. During pretrial discoveries he complained that the magazine’s stories had thrice scuppered his nomination for the Order of Canada. Pressed to name his “back channel” source, he admitted it was prime minister Chrétien. When the transcripts were filed in court in the spring of 1998, the papers had a field day.
There seemed to be a trend toward Duffy being the story, rather than breaking them. In October 2000, following the death of Pierre Trudeau, he made headlines for an ill-considered remark to the late prime minister’s former wife, Margaret. As she met with the crowds of mourners who had come to see Trudeau lying in state on Parliament Hill, Duffy reminded her, live on CTV, that it was also the birthday of her dead son, Michel. She fell to her knees sobbing. Duffy and the network apologized profusely. But it did little to quell the public backlash. During the funeral in Montreal two days later, the booing was so loud that producers had to pull him off the streets.
Later that same month, it emerged that Duffy had been arrested for drunk driving the previous spring, after getting off a late-night flight from Toronto and weaving his way out of the parking lot at Ottawa’s airport. He pleaded guilty, was fined $600 and had his licence suspended for a year. Duffy told reporters that he had learned his lesson from his “national humiliation” and vowed never to drink and drive again. During his suspension, Collins took to picking him up from Hy’s, Ottawa’s current power spot, waiting patiently outside in the car while he said his extended goodbyes.
His stock was dropping with his bosses and colleagues, too. While no one doubted his encyclopedic knowledge of Canadian politics, or talent for live TV, there was plenty of grumbling about his propensity to show up at the last possible second, leaving his producers and guests sweating. Behind the scenes, there were more struggles over his expenses and contract demands. And his temper seemed to be getting the best of him. One incident, at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in the spring of 2001, led to a formal complaint.
Carl Langelier, then CTV’s field producer in Quebec, had organized the network’s coverage of the event, arranging for everything from satellite trucks to hotel rooms to accreditation. But when he went to collect the credentials on the ﬁrst morning, he noticed that three more people had been added to CTV’s list—names that he didn’t recognize as employees. Given the heightened security around the summit—George W. Bush was in town and so were thousands of anti-globalization protesters—Langelier refused to accept the additional passes. A little while later at the conference centre, he came across Duffy, who was in his chair, a couple of minutes from going to air, and gave him his accreditation. “He asked me, ‘Did you get the passes for my wife and friends?’ ” recalls Langelier. “I told him, ‘No, your wife isn’t working for CTV.’ ” The confrontation that followed was broadcast through the network feed to a number of witnesses in Toronto and Ottawa. “He went completely crazy,” says Langelier. “He yelled, ‘You bastard, son of a bitch, you better get these passes now or I’m going to kick your ass.” Afterwards, with the backing of his bosses, Langelier filed a complaint. He was later told that Duffy had been disciplined, but other network sources doubt it. “The sense I got was that it was just ignored, like all the other Duffy stuff,” says one of several current and former CTV employees with whom Maclean’s verified details of the incident.
For his part, Duffy denies that any such incident took place. “That is not true,” the senator wrote in an email. “I trust you have had your lawyers look at this kind of tall tale.” Langelier, who moved on a few years later to work for a Quebec City radio station, has recently been tried on charges that he impersonated a police officer in order to obtain an interview with the family of a teenage suicide victim in the fall of 2011. The judge is to return his verdict in October.
As Duffy’s difficulties at work mounted, he formed a strange alliance with an old enemy, calling Frank magazine to pass along unflattering tidbits about other network personalities. “If Duffy was having difficulty with somebody at CTV, he’d give me dirt on them,” says Michael Bate, the former editor. One of the more interesting dimes he dropped was that Jana Juginovic, the senior producer in charge of political coverage, was in a relationship with Peter MacKay, the minister of defence. There were also plenty of stories about Craig Oliver. And Duffy developed another dangerous habit—firing off intemperate late-night emails to his bosses, chastising them for perceived slights and oversights, and then passing around their responses to his “allies.”
As Duffy crested 60, and began contemplating the end of his TV career, his long-held dream of a perch in the Upper Chamber seemed to take on a new urgency. He began catching rides to the Hill on the white buses that ferry senators and their staff. (Most journalists walk, or take the green buses that serve the House.) In print and on the air, he often seemed to take the side of the new Conservative government. During the 2008 election, he clashed live on camera with Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green party, who accused him of trying to paint her as “out to lunch.” And he delivered what may well have been the coup de grâce to Stéphane Dion’s struggling Liberal campaign. Duffy broadcast a tape of an interview the Opposition leader had given to a CTV affiliate in Halifax, in which Dion stumbled badly in his second language and needed to take repeated runs at a question about his economic policy. The truth was that the “do-overs” had been an agreed-upon part of the interview and were not supposed to see the light of day.
The call for which Duffy had been waiting most of his life came two months later. The appointment wasn’t a surprise; his name had been bandied about in the press for weeks, and at a CTV Christmas party just a couple days before it became official, he dropped broad hints to colleagues, comparing himself to a teenage boy waiting for the phone to ring on a Friday night. The 18 people Harper named to the Senate, at an annual salary of more than $130,000 each, had a clear mission—to oppose any attempt by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois to form a coalition and topple his new minority government. Yet Duffy felt it necessary to pretend otherwise, portraying himself in interviews as being both surprised by the offer and reluctant to take it. “Frankly, I told the Prime Minister I’m not much of a partisan. And he said, ‘Do you believe in Senate reform?’ And I said yes. And he said, ‘That’s all I need.’ ”
The was some noise in the press about Duffy’s attenuated ties to Prince Edward Island and the constitutionality of his appointment. But the Prime Minister’s spokesman, Kory Teneycke, declared that the new senator would soon make the Island his primary home, file his taxes there and follow all the other rules to establish residency.
The reality was more like Duffy had been named a national ill-will ambassador, tasked with whipping up the party faithful at fundraising events from coast to coast. In his first three months on the job, he racked up more than $100,000 in travel and office expenses—double the average of his other P.E.I. counterparts. And by spring, he had already given more than 50 speeches across the country, all part of the “Mike Duffy Learning Tour,” he joked. A late May stop at the Legion in Nackawic, N.B., found him in ﬁne form, describing premier Danny Williams as “the whack job in Newfoundland,” referring to Elizabeth May as “Bucky the Beaver,” and wondering aloud if Michael Ignatieff suffered from multiple personality disorder.
The Conservative crowds ate it up. It was as if Duffy had suddenly rediscovered his long-lost audience. After one event in Cambridge, Ont., in 2009, he dragged Stephen Harper and Gary Goodyear, a junior cabinet minister and local MP, out to an Italian restaurant for dinner. Afterwards, he crowed to friends about how the other diners asked to pose for pictures with him, but not the Prime Minister.
These days, though, it’s hard to find anyone who will stand with Duffy. John Beattie, the founding producer of Sunday Edition, who now makes his living defending the Niagara Falls theme park Marineland in the press against charges of animal cruelty, hung up on Maclean’s. Jessie Inman, the CEO of Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre, referred calls to a spokesman. Yes, the senator had helped the theatre, he allowed, by opening some doors in Ottawa. But he wouldn’t disclose with whom, or what the results were. Calls and emails to Duffy’s siblings went unanswered. The family is also clearly suffering from the scandal. Although surely his son Gavin, now an RCMP officer in B.C., is in the most awkward position.
While Duffy isn’t speaking, he is by no means silent. His hand has been evident in many of the stories about his past interactions with the Conservative party and the PMO. And his preferred spin—that he is being unfairly singled out as part of a concerted effort to build support for Senate reform—has been given a sympathetic airing by at least a few of his old friends.
Fighting on is perhaps the only option left for the Senator. His pension doesn’t vest until his sixth anniversary in the job in January 2015.
But some old friends wonder how he ever found himself in this mess in the first place. The old Duff, the bon vivant and raconteur, used to love to entertain his friends with stories of historical scandals and political downfalls. “Nobody had a bigger store of those tales than Duffy,” says Brian Stewart. “I would have bet that of all the people in Ottawa he would have been too clever by half to fall into this trap. He knew every pitfall.”
But that was a long time ago. The other Duffy—hungry for recognition, a little too entitled, a lot too loose of lips—is the guy most people on the Hill are now familiar with. Mike Duffy always wanted a seat in the Senate. The only surprise is that Stephen Harper was the one foolish enough to give it to him.
Maclean's September 16, 2013