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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Thursday May 9, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Thursday May 9, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

senate expenses

Harper to tackle Senate crisis with unusual open speech to Tory caucus Add to ...

Stephen Harper will confront the Senate expenses imbroglio head-on in an unusual open speech to his caucus, trying to calm public outrage by confirming his commitment to reform the Red Chamber.

The address Tuesday, with cameras rolling, will be the first time the Prime Minister has spoken to Canadians since the conflagration began spreading, eventually claiming his chief of staff on Sunday, after a $90,000 payout to beleaguered Senator Mike Duffy.

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“The message will be we need to remember our roots and political accountability and why it’s important we push hard on accountability,” a source said.

The NDP is pushing for a wider RCMP probe into Nigel Wright’s decision to pay for Mr. Duffy’s reimbursement of illegitimate expense claims, and even Conservative officials are worrying about the controversy’s impact on their government’s reputation.

While the caucus address is a chance for Mr. Harper to try to reassure Canadians that he has a grasp on the spending crisis, he is expected to reject calls for an independent investigation.

Instead, the government is planning to rely on ongoing probes by Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard to get to the bottom of the matter, a source said.

The Prime Minister is expected to highlight his government’s repeated efforts to overhaul the Senate, and to argue that the Conservatives are “the one party putting forward serious proposals on Senate reform.”

The Harper government has long proposed legislation to reform the Senate by imposing term limits and allowing for provincial elections of future senators, although the measures have not made any progress. The government has referred questions about the constitutionality of its reform plan to the Supreme Court, which slowed down the approval of the legislation that is being contested by some provinces.

The Prime Minister will invite media to hear his speech to Conservative caucus at 9:30 a.m., although it remains unclear when he will finally answer questions on the matter. Mr. Harper will head to Peru and Colombia for an official visit later on Tuesday.

The who’s who of the Conservative government came together Monday evening at a ceremony in honour of Doug Finley, the long-time organizer and senator who died earlier this month. Mr. Finley was one of the key architects of the Conservative Party’s victory in 2006 that brought Mr. Harper to power on a promise to clean up Canadian politics.

Conservative officials acknowledged that the Senate scandal has angered voters across the country and hurt their party among its traditional electorate. Former Conservative senator and minister Michael Fortier said the matter has caused “considerable harm,” pointing out that the controversy originated in a chamber of Parliament that is largely unloved in the government.

“The Prime Minister’s biggest challenge is that he is the one who gave the appointments to the people who are making him look bad,” Mr. Fortier said in an interview.

Mr. Duffy and another senator involved in the spending controversy, Pamela Wallin, quit the Conservative caucus last week, while Mr. Wright announced his resignation on Sunday morning.

Conservative sources said many MPs are angry at their Senate colleagues, and the caucus meeting will be a good forum for all people involved to air their feelings. The sense in party circles is that Mr. Harper will need to deliver a stern message to his caucus, while reassuring his troops that the controversy is under control.

But at a news conference on Monday, the NDP said Mr. Wright’s $90,000 cheque to Mr. Duffy must be investigated by the RCMP, which is already looking into the recent audit into controversial Senate expenses. “The fact that Nigel Wright made a secret payment to a politician who is running from one of the biggest expense scandals, that doesn’t pass the smell test,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said.

The NDP’s ethics critic accused the Conservative Party of having reneged on its promise to bring greater accountability to Canadian politics. “We haven’t heard the Prime Minister say that a secret cash payment to a politician is wrong,” Mr. Angus said. “Stephen Harper … has broken that trust with Canadians; he needs to restore it.”

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will have their first opportunities in the House on Tuesday to grill the government on Mr. Wright’s payment to Mr. Duffy, given that Parliament did not sit last week.

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