OTTAWA — A “very upset” Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to settle down a scandal-rattled Conservative caucus Tuesday with talk of accountability and Senate reform, but shed no new light on the $90,000 transaction that cost him his chief of staff.
Conservative MPs and senators heading into Tuesday’s caucus meeting had hoped Harper would provide more facts behind the growing scandal that forced his right-hand man, Nigel Wright, to resign over the weekend.
But if Harper’s speech — opened up on this occasion to the media, a rarity — was any indication, they didn’t get much.
“I don’t think any of you are going to be very surprised to hear that I am not happy,” Harper said in his first public comments since revelations last week that Wright wrote a personal cheque worth $90,000 to embattled Sen. Mike Duffy.
“I’m very upset about the conduct we have witnessed, the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office.”
Harper didn’t go into detail, however, about just how involved he or his office was in helping Duffy repay living expenses he shouldn’t have claimed in the first place.
Nor did he go any farther behind closed doors; sources told The Canadian Press that while MPs pressed for more details during the meeting on his office’s role in bailing out Duffy, they didn’t get any.
The matter is in the hands of the federal ethics commissioner who can be trusted to sort things out, many suggested.
“Trust me, they ask all the questions and they get to the bottom of the matters and that is the appropriate place, and that’s where the ethics commissioner’s report comes up,” said Labour Minister Lisa Raitt.
“It will be transparent and we will be accountable.”
Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson confirmed she had “today launched an examination under the Conflict of Interest Act of Mr. Nigel Wright’s involvement in the repayment of a Senator’s expenses.”
The commissioner had no further comment on whether Wright broke ethics rules by giving Duffy what was initially described as a gift to help pay back his disallowed housing expenses.
The payment was used by Duffy as an excuse to stop co-operating with an ongoing audit of his expenses.
The issue of Duffy’s expense claims is also set to be reviewed anew by the Senate internal economy committee, which Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird referred to as an “independent” body on Tuesday.
“We look forward to the results of these reviews,” Baird said.
The prime minister’s office said last week that Wright was not expecting to be repaid by Duffy, but suggested there was an agreement in place between the two men.
“The only stipulation on the money to Duffy — sent to him through his lawyer — was that an equal amount be sent to the Receiver General from Duffy on the same day to cover the impugned claims,” Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said in an email.
CTV reported on Monday that a formal agreement was written up governing the terms of the payment but Baird repeatedly fended off a barrage of questions Tuesday in the Commons by saying there was no written deal.
“Our understanding is that there is no such agreement,” he said.
Benjamin Perrin, the lawyer reportedly used by the Prime Minister’s Office to draft the arrangement, also issued his own denial.
“I was not consulted on, and did not participate in, Nigel Wright’s decision to write a personal cheque to reimburse Sen. Duffy’s expenses,” Perrin said in a statement.
“I have never communicated with the prime minister on this matter.”
Meanwhile, questions still linger as to whether the transaction between Duffy and Wright came with a commitment that the Senate committee investigating Duffy’s claims would go easy on him.
That matter was to be raised in the Senate when it resumed sitting Tuesday evening.
Senators were to consider the report into Duffy, as well as those investigating Sen. Patrick Brazeau and Sen. Mac Harb — all of them deemed to owe taxpayers thousands of dollars in improperly claimed living expenses.
A fourth report, containing recommendations for changes to the rules, is also up for discussion.
Harper said he has discussed the situation with Sen. Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate.
“She has my full support to accelerate changes to the Senate’s rules on expenses and close any loopholes in those existing rules,” Harper said. “And I expect Conservative senators, regardless of what opposition you may face, to get that done.”
A fifth report looking into expenses claimed by Sen. Pamela Wallin remains outstanding. She and Duffy have already left caucus. Brazeau was removed earlier because of criminal charges on an unrelated matter.
Harper reminded his caucus about a pointed warning he first issued in 2005: no one seeking elected office to line their own pockets is welcome in the Conservative fold.
“Anyone who wants to use public office for their own benefit should make other plans, or better yet, leave this room,” Harper said, jabbing his finger for effect.
Anyone who takes money to which they are not entitled should pay a price, said Quebec Sen. Jacques Demers.
“If these people have done what has been speculated that they have done, they should be fired, they should not just be going to Independent,” he said.
The former Montreal Canadians hockey coach stressed that he supports the prime minister, but is pondering his own future. Demers said he may have to leave if the scandal isn’t cleared up to his satisfaction.
“I really, really trust Mr. Harper,” he said. “I’m in a reflection period. It means I’m going to see what’s going to happen. I want to see if I’m going to stay in the Senate.”
Some observers have painted the crisis as the most serious test the Conservatives have faced since winning their majority in 2011, but Harper framed the issue more as a minor distraction.
“We have an active and important agenda on the issues that matter to hardworking Canadian families and there is much work to be done,” he said.
“When distractions arise, as they inevitably will, we will deal with them firmly.”
Harper’s speech was greeted with an ovation and his caucus broke out into chants at the end, drowning out reporters who tried to ask the prime minister questions.
Harper needs to be a lot clearer with Canadians, the opposition said, using up a third of Tuesday’s question period to grill the government.
“They think we’re fools,” said Francoise Boivin of the NDP. “They’re trying to make us believe that (Harper) knew nothing.”
Complained New Democrat Nathan Cullen: “These guys will not be accountable.”
Charlie Angus, the New Democrat who has been worrying at the issue since it began, called it “abuse of the public trust.”
The government “has lost its moral compass,” boomed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. “The prime minister is in this up to his neck.”
Liberal colleague Ralph Goodale called it “an insidious scheme.”
Through it all, Baird maintained an uncharacteristic calm, glancing periodically at his notes and insisting Harper only knew of the payment to Duffy when it became public last week.
The minister, who can be a vitriolic opponent, never raised his voice. “I can’t be any more clear,” he said repeatedly.