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Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets memebers of his party after delivering an address to his caucus May 21, 2013 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets memebers of his party after delivering an address to his caucus May 21, 2013 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

John Ibbitson: Harper refuses to give any answers on Senate expenses scandal Add to ...

A visibly unhappy Stephen Harper sought to refocus his government in a speech to caucus Tuesday morning that made several claims but answered no questions.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that the Senate expenses scandal has left him “not happy. I’m very upset about some conduct we have witnessed – the conduct of some parliamentarians, and the conduct of my own office.”

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But what he knew about that conduct, what he knows now, what responsibility he is willing to take for this imbroglio – on all that, he was publicly silent.

Instead, he reminded his colleagues of previous reforms aimed at making MPs and senators more accountable. And, as predicted, he sought to swing the discussion back to the government’s record on jobs and the economy.

It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even the beginning of enough.

The Prime Minister is reeling from a scandal with two linked, yet distinct elements: The first element: Three senators he appointed – Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau – submitted tens of thousands of dollars in questionable housing or travel expenses.

The second, and much more serious, element: Mr. Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, used his own money to pay off Mr. Duffy’s expenses and didn’t tell anyone – including, Mr. Wright maintains, the Prime Minister.

Reporters, if they were given the chance, would have many questions of the Prime Minister, including but not limited to: Did he really know nothing about Mr. Wright’s extraordinary decision to pay Mr. Duffy’s expenses? Was that payment intended to circumvent an audit into those expenses? Why did he defend Mr. Wright’s actions when it became public knowledge, only to later accept Mr. Wright’s resignation?

But the Prime Minister’s speech to caucus was just that – a nine-minute public address, with no Q and A, either from caucus members or from reporters. And by happy coincidence, Mr. Harper is leaving Tuesday on a trade mission to Latin America. He is notorious for offering few media availabilities during such trips.

That such stonewalling is unacceptable to the opposition and to the media goes without saying. The question is, what does the general public think about all this?

Mr. Wright’s resignation took place on Victoria Day weekend, when people have better things to do than pore over the entrails of a political scandal.

The Prime Minister is also fortunate in having Rob Ford as a distraction. The video allegedly showing the Toronto mayor smoking crack cocaine is an infinitely more enthralling controversy.

But the fact remains that this government is tainted by allegations of personal avarice covered up by backroom manoeuvres – something it has never before been credibly accused of.

And in his first public comment on the affair since he lost his chief of staff, Mr. Harper addressed none of this directly, laying down instead a series of talking points.

He did nothing to help himself or his government. He might even have made things worse. If he was advised that he should cancel his foreign travels and devote himself exclusively to dealing with this mess and putting his government back on track, it’s clear he didn’t take it.

He can only hope that he doesn’t return to a mess that’s gotten even worse.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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