“You’ve got a lot of nerve
To say you’ve got a helping hand to lend.
You just want to be on the side that’s winning.”
— From Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”
Cue the sad violins, and pity poor Peter Penashue. He did the honourable thing by resigning his seat and cabinet position, all because of some inexperienced campaign volunteer’s multiple mistakes, and now he has to put himself out there all over again and run in a byelection to regain his justly deserved seat.
That just seems like such an injustice, especially when you consider he’s the best MP Labrador has ever had. The absolute bestest.
Now cue the laugh track.
Because this whole thing, if it wasn’t so egregious, would be downright hilarious.
The scenario described above is what Penashue, the PM and the Conservative Party of Canada would have us believe. They think we’re that naïve.
Here’s what really happened.
Peter Penashue won his seat in Labrador for the Conservatives by a slim margin, and perhaps non-coincidentally, by getting a financial boost from illegal campaign donations. His campaign accepted thousands of dollars in cheques and in-kind services from corporations, even though that’s a clear no-no.
Yet, somehow, Penashue himself was kept in the dark and signed his declaration for Elections Canada thinking that everything was squeaky-clean and his campaign had been run flawlessly.
He didn’t know anything about illegal donations and presumably had not a single shred of curiosity about who was financially supporting his campaign. It’s too bad, because if he had inquired, he could have nipped those naughty corporate donations in the bud and avoided a whole lot of grief.
It’s too bad his inexperienced volunteer campaign worker screwed everything up. Gee, it sure is hard to find good help these days.
OK, so that’s not quite what happened, either.
Here’s what we do know.
Peter Penashue won his Labrador seat by a margin of 79 votes. Penashue’s campaign violated Elections Canada rules and he had to pay back tens of thousands of dollars worth of campaign contributions. (Actually, he didn’t pay the money back, the Conservative party did).
He did not do the honourable thing by resigning and running again. The honourable thing would have been to resign and let someone untainted by scandal have a crack at the seat.
And it’s never honourable to blame your campaign volunteers. Penashue ran for office and won it (though hardly fair or square). Penashue’s face was on the signs. Penashue is responsible for his campaign, and the fallout from it.
And here’s another fact: Peter Penashue is not the best MP Labrador has ever seen. He was not the best federal cabinet minister this province has ever seen.
What Peter Penashue can lay claim to is that he might just have been the best MP for Ottawa this province has ever elected, though John (Take-It-or-Leave-It) Efford is nipping closely at his heels.
Both MPs fell into the familiar and comfortable trap of ignoring the people who sent them to office and pandering, instead, to the prime minister.
Well-paid messengers for the PMO, and nothing more.
Much has been made of Penashue’s stellar reputation as a native leader when he was president of the Innu Nation. I don’t dispute that, but that’s also not for me to decide. All I can judge him on is his performance as this province’s representative in the federal cabinet, and that performance was abysmal.
He did not speak for Labrador, nor the province. He spoke for no one. In fact, he rarely spoke at all. There was nothing but a big gaping silence where a strong voice should have been.
The TV footage of him reading a newspaper in the House of Commons while his Conservative colleagues stood to defend him said it all.
And now, after having held a federal cabinet post for a year and a half — a time largely spent handing out cheques and ceremonial honours — he gets to vie for that plum post once again and is already soliciting new donations for his cause. (Let’s hope he pays more attention to where those cheques are coming from this time around, though, eh?)
Watching politicians make a mockery of democracy and voters is nothing new in this province.
Remember Fabian Manning’s decision to dump his Senate seat for another crack at federal politics?
“I could have gone to the Senate and I could have sat down for the next 30 years and twiddled my thumbs, but you know, that’s not how I operate,” he said at the time — in the days before he attempted to win back his Avalon riding and lost. (How are your thumbs now, Mr. Manning?)
We watched on TV as Tory cabinet minister Ed Byrne swore he’d clear his name, and then we watched again as he was convicted in the constituency allowance spending scandal and led out of the courtroom in shackles.
We heard former Liberal cabinet minister Jim Walsh’s pathetic attempts to blame his staff for his own transgressions, and then it was the shackles for him, too.
So, yeah, we’ve been bamboozled a time or two. And still, every time it happens, it feels like another painful rip in the fabric of democracy.
Pam Frampton is a columnist
and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.