Stephen Harper went on the offensive in the Senate expense-claims scandal, trying to diminish the impact of Mike Duffy’s allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office threatened him with expulsion from the Red Chamber if he didn’t repay questionable claims.
Speaking more forcefully than he has in months on the matter, the Conservative Prime Minister made a concerted effort to dispel the notion that Mr. Duffy had somehow been wronged in this controversy. The Senate is debating a Tory motion to suspend without pay three senators – all appointed to the chamber by Mr. Harper – over their conduct with expense claims.
“The victims here are the Canadian people who expect from all parliamentarians that they will treat public money with the appropriate respect and integrity it deserves,” Mr. Harper told Question Period during another barrage of queries from opposition parties.
Mr. Harper shifted tone in his handling of the scandal Wednesday, trying a more personalized approach to defending how he dealt with Mr. Duffy. “Mr. Duffy now says he is a victim because I told him he should repay his expenses. You’re darn right I told him he should repay them,” he said in the House of Commons to loud applause from Conservative MPs.
The Conservative government was dragged into the Senate expenses scandal after the PMO acknowledged then-chief of staff Nigel Wright had personally reimbursed taxpayers for $90,000 of Mr. Duffy’s housing expense claims – a matter now part of an RCMP investigation. Mr. Duffy, a former broadcast journalist and two other Harper appointees, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, are also facing possible suspensions in the Senate over alleged “gross negligence” of parliamentary resources.
The Mounties have not determined whether Mr. Wright’s actions constitute an offence, but the expenses scandal has exposed the Conservative Party’s dirty laundry and the PMO’s inner dealings.
In an impassioned speech to the Senate Wednesday, Ms. Wallin, another former broadcast journalist, said she was pushed out of the Conservative caucus earlier this year because her membership had become “an embarrassment” to Mr. Harper.
Ms. Wallin said the Prime Minister’s then-principal secretary, Ray Novak, and then-Senate leader Marjory LeBreton made a “panicked phone call” to demand her resignation on behalf of the Prime Minister. When she tried to argue that she had done nothing wrong, she said, “I was told again that they were speaking for the Prime Minister, he wanted me gone.”
She said she negotiated a deal to “recuse” herself from caucus rather than resign, but the deal was broken when Ms. LeBreton declared publicly that Ms. Wallin had resigned from the Conservative caucus.
In her speech, Ms. Wallin argued that the motion to suspend her is politically motivated and aimed, in part, at appeasing Conservative supporters ahead of a party convention this fall. “The real intent is to remove a perceived liability, namely me,” she said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Duffy broke his silence in a lengthy speech to the Senate, saying Mr. Harper ordered him to repay questionable housing expenses during a private meeting the two had with Nigel Wright last February. The allegation is the first time the three men have been placed alone in the same room in connection with the Senate expenses affair. The Prime Minister’s Office maintains Mr. Wright acted alone when he gave Mr. Duffy $90,000 to pay back expense claims that were under investigation.
Mr. Harper didn’t rule out the possibility that some in his office might have warned they would seek to remove Mr. Duffy from the Senate if he didn’t comply. Instead he very selectively denied he’d threatened to oust the senator during a February caucus meeting.
“At that particular time did I threaten him with expulsion? No,” Mr. Harper said. “What I said to our caucus is that you cannot claim an expense you did not incur. That is not right, that is not proper and that will not be tolerated.”
He also took pains to repeat his insistence that he was not among those in the PMO privy to Mr. Wright’s decision to give $90,000 to Mr. Duffy. Media reports suggest more than one dozen Conservative insiders were aware the senator was receiving help in repaying expense claims.
“One of those people was not me because I obviously would never have approved such a scheme,” Mr. Harper said.
Ms. Wallin alleged that the audit of her expenses, which was made public in August, was designed by a Senate committee to inflate the amount of money she would be asked to repay. She said auditors were given “marching orders” by the Senate committee in charge of the audit that included applying a 2012 travel policy retroactively to her claims.
“It was designed to inflate the numbers and to inflame public opinion,” she said.
The Saskatchewan senator also accused two of her former colleagues of treating her with a vendetta by allegedly leaking select information about her expense claims to the media. She said she was targeted by Ms. LeBreton and Carolyn Stewart Olsen, who until recently sat on the Senate steering committee on the internal economy, because of her high public profile and outspoken presence in caucus. “They resented me because I was an activist senator,” Ms. Wallin said.