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Harper feels pressure in House over PMO role in expense claims

Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday May 28, 2013.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An extraordinary 20 minutes unfolded in the House of Commons as Stephen Harper faced his first grilling in Parliament over his office's part in the Senate expense-claim affair.

The daily accountability session known as Question Period resembled a courtroom interrogation on Tuesday as opposition leaders largely shelved the bombast and lengthy speechifying that usually accompany questions.

Instead, they posed concise, direct queries to Mr. Harper, asking him about the secret $90,172 gift his former chief of staff gave Senator Mike Duffy to repay illegitimate expense claims.

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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, a lawyer by trade, hit Mr. Harper with 16 questions, probing his handling of the controversy and whether the Prime Minister's Office interfered with a Senate investigation into Mr. Duffy.

Hands clasped in front of him, Mr. Mulcair would rise, ask a short question and then sit down immediately, forcing Mr. Harper to rise repeatedly to account for himself. The NDP Leader directed his questions across the aisle to his Conservative rival, rather than towards the Speaker as MPs are supposed to do. The effect was to make the proceedings appear more like a hearing as the New Democrats explored whether the Tories toned down a Senate report on the PEI senator in return for him acknowledging he needed to reimburse taxpayers for close to $100,000.

"Mike Duffy wrote in an e-mail that after being paid $90,000, he 'stayed silent on the orders of the Prime Minister's Office.' Who told Mike Duffy to remain silent?" Mr. Mulcair asked Mr. Harper.

The Prime Minister denied all knowledge of this. "These are not matters that I am privy to. This is an e-mail from Mike Duffy, who is no longer a member of our caucus and certainly never conveyed that information to me."

Mr. Harper refused to say why Mr. Wright remained as his chief of staff for close to five days after news broke of his private deal with Mr. Duffy. The Bay Street deal maker quit as the top PMO aide on May 18. And on Tuesday the Prime Minister stuck to his assertion that he only learned of the $90,172 deal after it was reported in the news.

"Mr. Speaker, we are asking very simple, straightforward questions and the Prime Minister is not answering them," Mr. Mulcair said. "That is the problem. Canadians want answers."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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