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Day 2: The Trial, Taxes and Semantics

“It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.”
Bill Clinton


Semantics is the study of the meanings of words and phrases in language. It is also the defining of the meanings of words and phrases based on a particular context. It is this second definition that is of most interest to politicians because it offers a fair amount of latitude in defining the current meaning of what they said as opposed to what it meant when they said it.

Confused? Aren’t we all.

Reasonable people can disagree on an issue based on agreed-to facts but when fact does not support the argument, many turn to arguing semantics to try and win the debate or to avoid accountability.

Bill Clinton’s famous response to a question during his grand jury testimony over the Lewinsky affair remains one of the most widely-known examples of a politician arguing semantics to avoid responsibility for his actions.

It should come as no surprise that the Mike Duffy trial would have its fair share of semantic argument. Criminal trials tend to be more about semantic arguments over law and this is a trial involving a member of the political class which is more than just proficient at arguing semantics in order to obscure or change meaning. The charges against Senator Duffy are based on interpretation of the law by the Crown. Clearly, the Defense will not agree with those interpretations and so the argument over semantics is joined.

Such was the case yesterday when both the Crown and the Defense allocated a significant amount of time on the meaning of ‘principle residence’ to the point where the Defense plunked-down an Oxford Concise dictionary in an attempt to clarify the meaning.

It seems obvious to most of us as to what a principle residence means but it isn’t always so clear in law because in law, as in politics, little is clear or based on common sense. Perhaps that helps to explain why so many lawyers become politicians. They feel quite at home with flexible definition.

Concurrently to the great doings down on Elgin St. in Ottawa, it is also tax time; another of the great Canadian rites of spring. There is a connection between the annual coughing up of tribute to Caesar and the Duffy trial. The Income Tax Act also has a definition of principle residence and while it has become almost a national sport to try and argue semantics with Canada Revenue Agency, the simple fact is that inevitably, semantics fall on deaf ears and their definition reigns supreme.

Under the Income Tax Act, Canadians that own more than one property can designate any one of them as their principle residence regardless of whether it is where they normally live. It can be a house, a condo, a trailer or a cottage. If you can live in it – you can designate it.

Further, the province in which you pay taxes is determined by where you’re designated principle residence is at the end of the year. If you live in Ontario but have designated your principle residence to be your cottage in Manitoba; then you pay provincial taxes to Manitoba, not Ontario.

A former law clerk of the Senate testified yesterday that the rules governing a senator’s residency are not clearly defined. There’s a surprise. There is no clear definition of a primary residence, how much time a senator should spend there or the type of residence required. He further testified that there was kind of a catch-all method to determining eligibility that included things like where a Senator or potential Senator spent most of their time, received healthcare services, voted and socialized but admitted that ultimately it was up to the Prime Minister’s Office to vet a candidate based on those criteria and to make the final determination.

That’s dry stuff and I can sympathize with reporters who were so enthusiastic on Monday but considerably less so yesterday. They aren’t looking for ‘dry’, they’re waiting for some political dynamite like dogs hoping for a juicy scrap to fall from the master’s table. The testimony was hardly the stuff that demand the kind of powerful adjectives used by the Star at the end of the Trial’s first day but – and there is always a but – it’s important stuff; perhaps more important than the politics that reporters want to talk about.

Clearly there is a considerable amount of ambiguity in Senate rules and it isn’t difficult to see how someone could make a mistake as a result. There are few walking among us who haven’t screwed up on their tax return at one point or another and CRA’s rules are pretty clear.

That shouldn’t be interpreted as a defense of the chubby cherub of the Upper Chamber; I have little use for those who abuse the privileges we provide in return for their service to our nation. I don’t speak for anyone but myself but I didn’t sign on to have my tax dollars grease the palms of those who put service to a political party ahead of service to the country and our democratic institutions.

The court will ultimately determine the what’s what about whether or not privilege was abused in the Duffy case and like it or not, we’re all going to have to live with that decision. We can all have opinions and we can share them with each other as much as we like but only the court is hearing all of the facts and considering all the evidence put before it.

What we see, hear and read in the media isn’t of much more evidentiary-value than the opinions expressed in the online comments below most news articles, the running commentary in social media or the posts written on blogs like this one.

But I do believe it is important to approach circumstances like this with as open a mind as possible because nothing happens in a vacuum. The circumstances and the intent go a long way towards determining the reality of something.

What is already clear after the first day of testimony is what we pretty much already knew but which we have also tended to give short-shrift in our rush to judgement. Quite simply, the rules around Senate appointments are as loose as a tourist’s bowels after drinking the water in a Mexican village. The argument that it’s all just common sense doesn’t hold much water either. The income tax act has about as much common sense to it as the energy policies of the Ontario Liberal government – which is to say – none and like the tax act, Senate rules boil down to a question of semantics.

Two things are are already clear, however, in the Duffy trial. First, it was the Office of the Prime Minister that vetted the old Duff and determined his eligibility to sit in the Senate based on his current living arrangements. Second, it is documented that Duffy did seek clarification and reassurance that his cottage in Prince Edward Island could be designated as his principle residence. Indeed, there is a memo from Senator Marjory LeBreton’s Office that clearly states that Senator Duffy could designate his cottage as his principle residence even if he seldom stayed in it.

Does that mean he’s an innocent who was caught in the headlights of an angry and self-serving political juggernaut barreling towards him on the highway? Initially perhaps but it is reasonably clear that like so many others, he grew to feel entitled to his entitlements. Whether that rises to a level of criminal culpability is what the court has been charged with determining.

But regardless of the verdict, one thing is abundantly clear and confirmed once again by the mere fact that there is a trial.

Our political system is broken, misused by a political class and their ability to redefine the definitions of what is and is not acceptable at any given moment. The real meaning of words has been reduced to a matter of convenience and what is convenient is whatever is meant at the time.

“It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.”

What was black yesterday can be white today if it is more convenient. Words like integrity, honour, service, duty and truth have been rendered all but meaningless. Semantics is the tool used to avoid accountability and to obscure transparency and the political class are the masters of semantics.

If Senator Duffy is found guilty of any or all of the charges brought against him, he should expect to face the consequences of that finding. Unfortunately it will send only a momentary chill through the political class who will quickly hide behind semantics to prove themselves guiltless leaving Duffy and whomever else may yet get caught in the crosshairs, to be just the latest sacrificial lamb(s) to the god of political privilege.

It isn’t semantics that is undermining politics, it is those who are most adept at arguing semantics that are.


Duffygate – The Trial of the Decade

Day 1: The Lines are Drawn at DuffyGate


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