An emotional and dramatic debate raged late into the night as senators weighed how to respond to a “crisis” in the Red Chamber.
The Conservatives moved to have the audit into Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses returned to the internal economy committee, the same group accused of whitewashing the initial report into the PEI senator’s expenses.
The opposition Liberals countered just before 10 p.m. with a motion that would have the audit of Mr. Duffy’s expenses referred immediately to the police. Conservative senators argued a referral to the police was premature and that the committee should have another look. The Speaker ruled late last night that the Liberal amendment was out of order and the government motion passed, sending the matter back to the committee.
“We will let the committee do its work and I’m quite confident they will do it properly,” said Marjory LeBreton, Government Leader in the Senate, in response to skepticism from the Liberal opposition.
It was the first time in the months-long saga of controversy over expenses that senators debated openly among themselves in the chamber about the rules they face and the expenses they claim.
It was also the first sitting of the Senate since last week’s resignation of Mr. Duffy and Senator Pamela Wallin from the Conservative caucus, which was followed by the resignation of Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.
Of the four senators at the centre of the current controversy, only Mac Harb and Ms. Wallin were in attendance. Ms. Wallin appeared at the start of the sitting and through Question Period, but left without speaking as the senators moved on to debating the audit reports of the three other senators.
As the debate went on, Mr. Harb rose to deliver a heated defence of his actions, insisting his expenses were approved by Senate finance officials.
“Now my reputation is under attack,” he said, asking the Speaker to rule he has been unfairly treated.
While some senators pointed out that the vast majority of senators found the rules around residency and expenses to be clear, he did find some sympathy.
“Human beings have been made to suffer in very inordinate ways,” said Independent Senator Anne Cools.
Mr. Duffy, who was seen arriving at the Ottawa airport on Monday, did not make an appearance in the chamber last night. Patrick Brazeau is currently suspended from the Senate and likely would have required special permission to attend. Mr. Brazeau did give media interviews over the weekend, arguing that his expenses had been approved in advance by the Senate administration. Both Mr. Brazeau and Mr. Harb are refusing to pay back the expenses.
Ms. LeBreton has threatened to have the money recouped from their salaries.
The debate did not necessarily fall along party lines. Some Liberals challenged their former colleague Mr. Harb, while Conservative Senator Hugh Segal appeared to support some of Mr. Harb’s arguments criticizing the process of the investigation.
Senators debated a series of audit reports and committee reports that were tabled this month by the internal economy committee on the expenses of Mr. Brazeau and Mr. Harb.
When the reports were released, the Conservative government praised Mr. Duffy’s “leadership” in returning the funds and ordered Mr. Brazeau and Mr. Harb to repay $48,744 and $51,482 respectively.
An audit of Ms. Wallin’s expenses has not yet been released.
Ms. LeBreton told the Senate she only learned in the media last week that Mr. Wright gave Mr. Duffy more than $90,000 to repay the expenses that were under question.
The Liberal opposition peppered Ms. LeBreton with questions as to why the reports from the Senate internal economy committee used softer language in the Duffy report than in the reports on Mr. Brazeau and Mr. Harb.
Ms. LeBreton suggested that was because Mr. Duffy had already returned the expenses and the committee wanted to press the other two senators to do the same.
“It wasn’t repaid in the way we thought it was, but that’s another issue,” Ms. LeBreton said.
The Liberals are asking the Senate speaker to find the government and the Prime Minister’s Office in contempt of the legislative branch for interfering in an issue that was the subject of a Senate-led audit.
If successful, it could lead to Senate hearings into what happened.