Stephen Harper is rejecting accusations from political rivals that he is shuttering Parliament for an extra month this fall merely to avoid more questions on the Senate expenses scandal.
However, those questions continue to follow the Prime Minister during his northern tour, and he said on Tuesday that there is “significant evidence” that some senators did not follow rules about what they could charge taxpayers for.
Mr. Harper confirmed this week that he will be seeking to prorogue Parliament until October. MPs had been set to return on Sept. 16, but are now expected back some time after Thanksgiving, when a Speech from the Throne will lay out the priorities of a government halfway through its mandate.
“I look forward to bringing forward new legislation and continuing to focus on jobs and growth,” the Prime Minister said on Tuesday in Hay River, NWT, during his annual summer tour of Northern Canada.
A delay in the resumption of Parliament until October will also defer the return of Question Period – a coveted platform for Mr. Harper’s political opponents, who now accuse him of simply trying to avoid questions about embattled senators, three of whom were appointed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Mr. Harper could easily have a Throne Speech in September, without delaying Parliament’s return. “There’s nothing to be taken away from any of this except the fact that Stephen Harper’s hiding, like he usually does,” Mr. Mulcair told reporters.
Deputy Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale said the delay was an attempt to avoid accountability. “Parliament has been on summer recess since June and the Prime Minister has had plenty of time to write a Throne Speech,” Mr. Goodale said.
Mr. Harper rebuffed the criticism, saying a new Throne Speech is “completely normal” and will lay out a fresh vision for his government, which won a majority in the 2011 election and pushed through several bills in June. “We have been able to adopt virtually all of our legislation to this point in Parliament. There’s a need to refresh legislation. … We will be very busy in the fall,” he said.
While conceding that proroguing of Parliament can be part of a “normal course of events” in parliamentary procedure, Mr. Mulcair stressed that doing so during a scandal creates a “fundamental problem in a free and democratic society. That’s our central democratic institution.”
Mr. Harper nonetheless continues to try to distance himself from the Senate spending scandal, including an audit released last week into the expenses of Pamela Wallin, who was appointed on Mr. Harper’s recommendation. Ms. Wallin was found by the auditors to have, among other claims, billed the Senate for travel to partisan events, including fundraisers. This comes after Mike Duffy, another Harper appointee, was found to have billed Senate expenses on days he was campaigning for the Conservative Party.
Mr. Harper said on Tuesday that the Senate sets its own spending rules and those should be followed. “Obviously there is significant evidence that was not the case and we expect that people will be held accountable when rules are not followed,” he said.
The Prime Minister wants little to do with the debate. Just last month, he severed a long-standing tie with the beleaguered Senate, signalling that there will no longer be a place in his cabinet for the person who represents the government in the Red Chamber. Marjory LeBreton had held that role.
Ms. Wallin is being asked to repay $121,348 after an independent audit found a series of problems with the former broadcaster’s expense claims. Auditors also identified an additional $20,978 in expenses subject to “interpretation,” and she could also be asked to pay back some or all of that figure.
The senator, who now sits as an independent, has already repaid $38,369.29 and has pledged to repay whatever she owes, but has called the audit process “fundamentally flawed and unfair.”
Mr. Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb have also all been ordered to pay back expense claims, largely related to their housing.
With a report from Josh Wingrove in Ottawa