OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has mounted his most spirited defence in months on the Senate spending scandal, accusing Sen. Mike Duffy of playing the victim card because he was ordered to refund inappropriate expense claims.
“Mr. Duffy now says he is a victim because I told him he should repay his expenses,” Harper told a high-octane House of Commons on Wednesday.
“Darn right I told him he should repay his expenses.”
With his Conservative caucus enthusiastically hooting and banging their desks, Harper took the offensive in the daily question period, repeatedly rising to his feet to respond with vigour, if not always clarity.
His performance — which lasted all of 19 minutes, including opposition questions — served as an antidote for Duffy’s toxic accusations levelled the previous afternoon in the Senate chamber.
Duffy claimed all his expenses were cleared by the Prime Minister’s Office and Senate leadership, but that he was thrown under the bus when news reports began undermining party popularity.
It was a scenario largely reiterated Wednesday by Sen. Pamela Wallin, another apostate Tory.
“’It’s not about what you did,”’ Duffy quoted Harper telling him. “’It’s about the perception of what you did that’s been created in the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base.”’
Harper denied making any such statement Wednesday. Instead, he dished up a bumper-sticker-simple response for the Conservative party base that has the benefit of being true, as far as it goes.
Yes, Harper agreed, he did order Duffy to repay the expense claims. As for the rest of the saga, the prime minister artfully managed to take none of the responsibility but all of the credit.
Did he threaten Duffy with reprisals if he wouldn’t go along with the scheme to repay his expenses?
No, said Harper.
“However, when inappropriate expense claims are made I expect corrective action to be taken,” Harper added, to roars of approval from his MPs.
“If it is not taken, a person who does not take corrective action could not expect to continue to sit as a member of the Conservative party.”
Did he order the Senate to expel, without pay, Duffy and former Conservatives Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau?
That was a Senate decision, said the prime minister, before adding that he wanted to “be unequivocal for the record: I fully support that motion. I do not believe that, under the circumstances, these individuals should be on the public payroll.”
Would he testify under oath?
“I have been crystal clear about this,” Harper responded, before sliding off onto another subject.
Was his lawyer involved in the repayment negotiations?
Why was Duffy called to the Prime Minister’s Office two days before the Feb. 13 meeting where Harper told him to repay his expenses?
“I think the allegation here is that Mr. Duffy and I were in Ottawa on the same day,” quipped Harper, who by now was having fun batting away the opposition questions.
The prime minister even managed to impugn Duffy’s credibility, saying that “when Mr. Duffy went on national television (last March) to say that he had repaid his own expenses by taking out a loan against his assets, that is exactly what he should have done.”
It was only weeks later that CTV revealed Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had in fact paid Duffy’s bill.
The prime minister has steadfastly maintained he knew nothing of Wright’s $90,000 cheque, and did so again Wednesday.
It won’t satisfy his harshest critics, but Harper has mollified a Conservative caucus that has seemed mortified by the Senate expense scandal. MPs emerged from Wednesday morning’s caucus meeting all singing variations on the same tune, the same message Harper and his MPs will no doubt take to the Conservative party policy convention in less than two weeks in Calgary.
A far more complicated story was being told down the hall from the Commons in the Senate chamber on Wednesday.
Wallin, like Duffy before her, ripped into a Conservative motion to expel her without pay in the absence of police charges or even evidence of wrongdoing.
The issue is no longer expenses but instead “political expediency” and “abuse of power,” said Wallin.
She accused the Conservative Senate leadership of “taking direction from the PMO” in a process that is “designed to appease the party faithful before a Conservative party convention at the end of the month.”