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Tuesday is Parliament Hill's day for a spinal self-exam. Senators and MPs will be asked to show backbone to assert a little independence from party leadership – and for Conservatives, from the Prime Minister.
The first part comes when senators debate a motion that amounts to deciding whether they'll look into allegations that the Conservatives' chief fundraiser, Senator Irving Gerstein, interfered with Senate work by contacting auditors over a review of Senator Mike Duffy's expenses. So far, Conservatives have blocked that by refusing to call a key witness.
The second is also expected Tuesday when Conservative MP Michael Chong will revive an old debate over the sway that party leaders hold over MPs. He'll propose a bill to remove a leader's veto over whether an MP can run again for the party, give control of caucus discipline to MPs and allow them to remove their leader.
Both have this in common: They involve legislators, senators and MPs, who already have the power to be independent but need the backbone to use it.
Mr. Chong isn't trying to launch a rebellion against Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He's pushed reforms for years. His bill, if passed, wouldn't take effect until after the 2015 election. Other parties' MPs sometimes chafe under controlling leaders, especially prime ministers.
The power of the PMO is under scrutiny now because of the Senate scandal. So, too, should be the backbone of people in political institutions, because the scandal found it lacking.
An RCMP investigator's recent court filing on the Senate scandal revealed there were many people involved, senators and PMO staffers, who are supposed to have ethical standards of their own, but did the bidding of the PMO.
The prime minister blames two people: Senator Mike Duffy, for allegedly claiming improper expenses, and Nigel Wright, once Mr. Harper's top aide as chief of staff, for secretly paying the $90,000 tab. But other PMO staffers also knew about that payment, and several senators changed a committee report on Mr. Duffy's expenses under PMO direction, according to the RCMP.
In blaming only Mr. Wright, the PM signalled this: Others aren't to blame for lapses because they were following Mr. Wright's direction – PMO orders.
That includes Mr. Gerstein. According to the RCMP, he was initially willing to have the Conservative Party pick up Mr. Duffy's expense tab.
But Mr. Gerstein's role in contacting an audit firm should be raising alarms for all senators. According to e-mails in the RCMP filing, Mr. Gerstein was tasked by the PMO to contact senior figures at accounting firm Deloitte to see if its review of Mr. Duffy's expenses, ordered by a Senate committee, could be stopped or softened once the expenses were repaid. Mr. Gerstein did call Deloitte managing partner Michael Runia, but told the RCMP he asked for information about the audit's status.
It raises important questions for the Senate: allegations a senator secretly meddled in a Senate committee's work. The committee held a hearing to examine whether there had been meddling in the audit – but Conservatives blocked efforts to call Mr. Runia as a witness and the matter was closed without the committee hearing from either him or Mr. Gerstein.
On Tuesday, Liberals will present a motion in the full Senate to have Mr. Runia testify. Conservative senators will have to decide, partisanship or not, if they can muster the will to look into an episode that suggests a taint on the chamber's work.
It's true that no one expects unelected senators to be completely independent. It's appropriate for party leaders to call on senators to back their publicly stated position in legislation. Meddling in reviews and investigations is not.
MPs, too, will never completely shake party discipline: They run under a party platform. Breaking ranks will always risk consequences to their political ambitions. It will always take some backbone. The irony in Mr. Chong's bill is that MPs have power – a majority can oust a PM, a majority in any caucus can force its will on a leader, and each one can vote their conscience – but they're debating a law to provide a little protection when they use it. The bill would only reset the power relationship a little. But even that will take backbone.
Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.