Stephen Harper won’t be in Question Period Monday to field opposition demands for more answers in the Senate expenses controversy.
He’s skipping the 45-minute accountability sessions in the Commons – as he usually does on Mondays and Fridays – and will leave it to his deputies to answer further questions about the improper expense claims of senators he appointed including Mike Duffy.
The NDP and Liberals want Mr. Harper to offer more details on the alleged secret deal between former Prime Minister’s Office chief of staff Nigel Wright and Mr. Duffy where the aide gave the Senator $90,172 of his private fortune to reimburse taxpayers for improper expense claims.
The prime minister fielded his first questions on the Wright-Duffy controversy last week while out of the country on an official trip to South America.
On May 21, the federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner launched a formal investigation of Mr. Wright’s payment.
The Senate Ethics Officer is reviewing the transaction and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are reviewing expense claims paid out to several senators to see whether an investigation is warranted.
Mr. Harper normally attends Question Period Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
However, this week he may also end up skipping Thursday Question Period because of an official visit from Chilean president Sebastián Piñera.
The Senate, meanwhile, is preparing to adopt tougher rules for travel expense claims, reforms that arrive as it reopens a probe into Mr. Duffy’s conduct that is expected to take a harder line this time.
Marjory LeBreton, Leader of the Conservative government in the Senate, said Sunday she expects to move for a vote Tuesday to embrace the new reporting standards. She wants the new regime to take effect as soon as possible – one intended to give Senate administrators more authority to question senators on their travel expenses.
Stung by public criticism over Senate expense claims and a secret deal by a top PMO aide to personally bail out Mr. Duffy over improper expense claims, the Conservatives have responded by saying they’re committed to reforming or abolishing the Senate and are merely waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of these options.
On Tuesday, the Senate committee charged with revisiting its investigation of Mr. Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses meets to decide its next move. Critics have accused the Conservative-dominated Internal Economy committee of “whitewashing” an earlier report on Mr. Duffy’s expense claims and alleged that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office interfered to soften that probe’s conclusions.
The Tories deny the PMO told the Senate what to write. But, Ms. LeBreton says, the report would have been different if members of the Internal Economy committee had known everything they know now – including recent media reports that Mr. Duffy claimed taxpayer-funded Senate per-diem expenses while also billing Tory campaigns for 2011 election-race appearances.
She predicted Sunday the Senate committee is prepared to take a harder line on Mr. Duffy now. “I just am confident that having the information – this new information about claiming expenses from [both] the party and also the public ... there is no way that they won’t take the proper action.”
The Conservative Senator said the committee could decide to call in the Auditor-General – a move she said she’d back. Both Mr. Duffy and the Liberals have called for public, rather than closed-door, hearings on the matter.
Ms. LeBreton said she’d also like to see a new expense tracking system that automatically audits the top 10 spenders in the Senate.