Stephen Harper is scrambling to prevent the Senate expenses affair from trailing him to Calgary – a task that’s getting harder as new revelations breathe fresh life into a corrosive political controversy.
The Prime Minister has an important date in his hometown this Friday. He must stand before thousands of Conservatives at a party convention and rebuild relations with the Tory faithful whom he will rely upon to re-elect him in the 2015 federal election. The ground game in ridings is crucial and he needs to ignite their passion for the next electoral battle.
This keynote speech is supposed to be part of Mr. Harper’s political reboot – the final measure after a big cabinet shuffle and a new Throne Speech spelling out the agenda for the last two years of his mandate.
But nine months of accusations in the media about senators padding their own expense accounts have left the Conservative grassroots dispirited and unhappy, Tories say privately.
Mr. Harper, who has always cast himself as an outsider in Ottawa, desperately needs to show he is cracking down on the Senate.
In an attempt to assuage public anger, Mr. Harper’s government is rushing to impose sanctions on Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau this week. The Conservative majority in the Senate is working furiously to hold a vote this week on suspending the trio of Harper appointees without pay.
The Prime Minister has also been making the rounds of friendly radio talk shows, trying to demonstrate to Canadians how he’s lancing this boil on the body politic. Speaking to a Halifax radio station Monday, Mr. Harper went so far as to revise the story of how chief aide Nigel Wright exited his office – an apparent attempt to demonstrate his resolve on the matter.
The former chief of staff didn’t just resign his post, as the Tories have said since he left the Prime Minister’s Office in May. He in fact was “dismissed,” Mr. Harper told News 95.7.
“I think the responsibility whenever things go wrong is for us to take appropriate action,” Mr. Harper told the radio station.
“As you know, I had a chief of staff who made an inappropriate payment to Mr. Duffy. He was dismissed.”
There are a variety of ways to describe a resignation that takes place when there are no options but to quit. After the interview, sources told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Wright in fact approached the Prime Minister and offered his resignation – and Mr. Harper accepted it. “It was the only appropriate outcome given what had happened,” one source familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Harper’s new choice of word – dismissed – is an effort to show Canadians and fellow Tories that he’s acting decisively on the controversy, said Keith Beardsley, a former staffer in the Harper PMO.
The rank-and-file are especially upset – and dispirited – because it was mostly Harper appointees who have thrown the Senate into a new crisis of legitimacy. After all, it was the Conservative Party’s predecessor, the Reform Party, that was founded in part on a mission to overhaul the Red Chamber – one that the Prime Minister has so far been unable to deliver.
“When you have this explode in your face and it’s your own senators doing it, I think there’s just an incredible amount of frustration,” Mr. Beardsley said.
The ugly revelations just keep piling up. On Monday, the beleaguered Mr. Duffy, fighting to stop his suspension, aired some more Conservative dirty laundry. Not only did Mr. Wright personally reimburse taxpayers for more than $90,000 of the PEI politician’s controversial expense claims, but, Mr. Duffy said, the Conservative Party also wrote a cheque for more than $13,000 to cover his legal fees. These are party funds that come in part from grassroots Tories.
Mr. Duffy also alleged the Prime Minister’s Office told him to publicly lie about the source of the $90,000 and say instead he took out a loan from a bank.
The Prime Minister needs diehard Tory supporters strongly behind him if he’s going to be able to manage to persuade Canadians to elect his government for an extraordinary fourth time in 2015. They’re the cogs in the election machine who staff the phones, stuff the envelopes, canvas neighbourhoods and drive voters to the polls.
The Senate expenses saga has, for the time being, significantly limited the Conservative government’s ability to attract media coverage to big political achievements, including the agreement-in-principle on a trade accord with the European Union.
Mr. Beardsley said the environment in Ottawa right now reminds him of when former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin was in office and he had to deal with revelations from an inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal.
“It’s probably not that dissimilar to what Paul Martin was going through with the Gomery inquiry – no matter what the good news was, it never got out. Everyone was following all the juicy details of the inquiry.”
The former PMO staffer said he thinks Mr. Harper should take the question of the Senate to the people: Call a national referendum on whether the Red Chamber should be abolished.
Mr. Beardsley said he wonders whether the Prime Minister is keeping this proposal up his sleeve until the right time.
Some have criticized Mr. Harper’s rush to suspend senators when they haven’t been convicted or charged with anything. All three are being investigated by the RCMP.
The Prime Minister is trying to frame this as step one in Senate reform: He’s saying that he is instituting a higher bar for behaviour in the Red Chamber, meaning offenders should be turfed for something less than a conviction. He can’t do much more until the Tories receive a requested ruling from the Supreme Court – one that could be months away – on whether the Conservative government can act alone in overhauling the Senate.
“What I think most Canadians would say is if you did that in your work, your boss wouldn’t wait for you to be convicted of a crime,” he told Toronto’s Newstalk 1010 several days ago. “Your boss would say that and that alone requires there’s some action be taken in terms of your job.”
Mr. Harper is acutely aware that his job is also on the line as he prepares to ask Canadians in 2015 to return him to office.