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Politics At the Mike Duffy trial, Stephen Harper will be the tie that binds

Stephen Harper doesn't expect to testify at Mike Duffy's trial, but he didn't need to be in the courtroom. His name was dropped throughout the first day.

In one way or another, the PM was tagged as the beginning and the end of the Duffy debacle.

It started with Crown prosecutor Mark Holmes, who opined that Mr. Duffy was "probably ineligible" to sit as a senator from Prince Edward Island in the first place. He was constitutionally eligible to represent Ontario, because he lived in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata.

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Mr. Holmes wasn't blaming Mr. Harper for the senator's $84,000 in expense claims for travel accommodations when he was at his home in Ottawa, where he'd lived for decades. He was arguing that eligibility and expense claims were different matters. The housing expenses were fraudulent, Mr. Holmes said, because Mr. Duffy made false claims about where he lived.

Mr. Duffy's lawyer, Donald Bayne, offered a different twist. Because Mr. Harper appointed Mr. Duffy to represent PEI, he was required to declare a a primary residence there, he argued. The Ottawa housing expense claims flowed from there.

It wasn't the only time the PM entered the proceedings. Mr. Bayne mentioned him in relation to most charges. Mr. Duffy's allegedly fraudulent travel claims were for public business often done at the behest of Mr. Harper, he argued. The $90,000 payment made by Mr. Harper's then-chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to settle questionable expenses wasn't a bribe Mr. Duffy demanded, but part of a PMO scheme to force the senator to say he had mistakenly made inappropriate claims when in fact, Mr. Harper knew his expenses were legitimate.

There's a strange meta-conflict at the trial between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Harper, though only one is there. The PM long ago disowned Mr. Duffy, but the former television personality was once, as Mr. Bayne reminded the court, a celebrity draw for the Conservatives who headlined fundraisers and emceed the PM's events.

On Tuesday, it seemed like a different Mike Duffy walking in. He pulled up outside the courthouse, and walked around to the door, surrounded by a crush of cameras. But there were no winks, no twinkle-eyed look-at-me grins as he walked, peppered by questions, but obviously under lawyer's orders to be quiet.

His trial opened as spectacle, with a phalanx of cameras, spectators lining up and NDP aides handing out cold Camembert outside. But it's a Canadian-style circus, with decorum inside. Mr. Holmes's opening was a low-key executive summary of evidence. Mr. Bayne was more effusive, but not over the top. Mr. Duffy held his chin in his hand and tapped his laptop, his wife sitting behind him.

The opening statements provided two theories, and in the defence case, Mr. Harper's Conservatives are featured players.

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According to the Crown, the travel-expense claims at issue were the senator's way of paying for personal travel by claiming he was on public business.

The defence insisted Senate rules define public business broadly, and it's okay to collect taxpayer funds to travel for partisan work. And, Mr. Bayne said, Mr. Harper asked for and appreciated Mr. Duffy's help for the Conservative cause.

If appointing Mr. Duffy to represent PEI was the beginning, the defence alleges it was Mr. Harper and Mr. Wright who were responsible for the end, with a damage-control scheme and Mr. Wright's $90,000 cheque.

Far from being a bribe demanded by the senator, Mr. Bayne argued, the payment was part of Mr. Wright's plan to quiet the controversy by forcing Mr. Duffy to admit he made a mistake, and say he had repaid the money.

But Mr. Duffy didn't think he was wrong. Mr. Wright didn't either, Mr. Bayne argued; he told the RCMP that he'd made it clear to the Prime Minister that he was pressuring a senator over expenses that were probably legitimate. The $90,000 deal was just Mr. Wright's personal investment in the damage-control scenario, Mr. Bayne argued.

The evidence will roll out now over 40 more days, in detail, without Mr. Harper's testimony. But there will be argument that the PM is a big part of the case, from beginning to end.

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