So much obfuscation. So much subterfuge. Then, lies and admission of lies.
No, it’s not a television soap opera. It is the circus surrounding the discovery of inappropriate residency and travel expense claims by four senators, one Liberal and three Conservatives, coming out of a June 2012 report by auditor general Michael Ferguson. But the sizzle in this beef focuses on the Conservative senators who were all appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The debacle that has put Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallen and Patrick Brazeau on the mat with Harper’s demand that the Conservative caucus, a majority in the Senate, vote to cut them off from pay and pension, is growing worse.
Duffy’s statements this week as he fights to keep his job in the Senate allege a cover-up that goes all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) regarding his re-payment of $90,000 in inappropriate claims. Duffy, senator from Prince Edward Island, went further to say he received not one cheque as previously stated, but two. He said the second cheque – for more than $13,000 – was to pay his legal fees, which it has been suggested is in connection with the paperwork between the various lawyers settling the agreement around the money given to Duffy allegedly from Harper’s former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright. Duffy also claimed that earlier statements he had made in the Senate about his process of repayment, that he took out a personal bank loan for the purpose, were false, created for him by operatives in the PMO. Wallen and Brazeau were similarly graceless, but Duffy provided a paper trail to support his assertions that his repayment was devised inside the PMO.
Months before his precedent-setting direction to the Senate Conservative caucus to penalize the trio by removing them from the Senate, Harper had gone to bat for Duffy and Wallen when their claims were revealed, speaking of them glowingly. But, that was then.
For the moment, Duffy is proving an unlikely adversary to Harper since his statements this week call into question Harper’s credibility. Harper’s claim that he had no knowledge, was not consulted and did not sign off on any of the payments is being called into question. Making matters worse, he has changed his statements several times including now saying that Wright didn’t resign but was “dismissed”.
Given Harper’s well-earned reputation for tight control of the Conservative ship, though, it is a stretch to imagine that he would be so far out of the loop.
This episode of hide-and-seek with the truth now points to questions about the culture inside the PMO, described by some as one of expediency. Harper has a reputation for enacting speedy removals when players risk embarrassing the Conservative brand. It happened with other high profile members of Harper’s inner circle, Helena Guergis and Maxim Bernier among them.
The pattern seems the same for these three senators.
So, how long can Harper continue to float above this mess as the Opposition parties continue to press him for answers to what he knew and when he knew it?
For now, the country waits with more interest than it has shown for some time in the workings in Ottawa to hear how the Senate will vote. A decision by the senators is not expected before the weekend, meaning that this cloud will hang over Harper as the Conservative Party of Canada convention begins today in Calgary.
Will this matter in two years? Harper won a majority in the last election despite nationwide anger and protests over his proroguing parliament to avoid questions about Canada’s armed forces turning over Afghan detainees to governments that practice torture, a violation of United Nations rules. But, this time may be different. Harper has already been Prime Minister for more than seven years. Would other members of his party with leadership aspirations begin to drift away from him to set their own course, widening rifts in the party?
And would Canadians, growing increasingly more impatient with the Conservatives, begin to look more closely at the other two Opposition leaders – the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair and the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau – for a potential replacement?