They might as well not have bothered. Harper invited the media in to watch his caucus speech, and gave a bland non-statement about how he was very upset (said in a monotone), “Yay Accountability Act!” and hey, the Senate needs to be reformed – err, except that absolutely nothing about his “reform” plans would do anything about this situation. And so, Harper said nothing about Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau, Wright, or the $90,000 cheque, and because he took no questions, some reporters started shouting them out before they were herded out. And then he got on a plane for Peru, which was planned at least a month in advance, but don’t let that stop Mulcair or the conspiracy theorists from trying to claim that he engineered the Clusterduff explosions to go off just as the trip was planned – as though there were enough competence in the PMO to pull that one off. John Ivison ripped Harper over the failure of the speech, and points to the unhappiness on the backbench that these events transpired and Harper appears to be taking it out on them, rather than looking at the events that transpired in the Centre. Michael Den Tandt writes about how this was a train wreck, and that it broke faith with Harper’s base.
The shrapnel from the Clusterduff explosion continues to ricochet around the capital as Parliament resumes today. Over in the PMO, the latest casualty is the former special council and legal advisor, Benjamin Perrin (who actually left in April to return to teaching law), who drafted the agreement between Nigel Wright and Senator Mike Duffy. But Perrin and Wright assert that Harper wasn’t told – because, plausible deniability, I guess. While the Senate is going to be seized with the audit reports and the proposed new rules, now that they’ve had the week to look them over, the House is going to be some kind of fun, as the NDP bray about ethics and accountability, and Harper, well, heads to Peru and then a Pacific summit (that was all pre-arranged long before any of this broke, before any of you start getting any ideas about this foreign travel being a little too convenient). The NDP have decided to ride the ethics train and demand that the RCMP look into the Nigel Wright/Mike Duffy affair, because they’re apparently not content to let the Conservatives continue to self-immolate. They also seem to be oblivious to the obvious Conservative counter-offensive about Thomas Mulcair’s decades of curious silence about the attempted bribery that he declined in 1994. (I’ve been told that the Liberals will stay out of this in QP, since they are content to let said self-immolation continue unaided – we shall see). Harper is going to have an emergency caucus meeting in the morning before he heads off to Peru (though apparently nobody told Finance Committee, who are still slated to meet early). The opening portion of said meeting will be open to the media, but he won’t take any questions, which could be a long and uncomfortable silence for all the journalists travelling with him if he decides to sequester himself.
It was a move that should have happened last week, but instead it was announced at eight-thirty Sunday morning – Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, resigned over the whole writing-a-$90,000-cheque-to-Mike-Duffy thing. And then comes the waves of lament and apologists, crying that Wright was a good man who was doing his bit for public service (even though a job in the PMO is not public service – it is the opposite, in fact), though nobody seems to be asking themselves any of the critical questions about the actual wrongdoing. Taking Wright’s place will be Ray Novak, Harper’s principle secretary and a loyalist from his days in the Alliance Party, so one can expect a much more partisan tone returning to the PMO, which had softened under Wright. Not that Wright’s departure actually answers any of the questions about what actually happened between Wright and Duffy, which is kind of a big deal – as John Geddes, Paul Wells and Michael Den Tandt all write. Not that Harper will be answering questions – he’s off to Peru this week, and because each embattled Senator has resigned from their respective caucus, and Wright is also gone, the government line can be “everyone involved has now resigned, let’s just move on.” And thus becomes the government’s damage control strategy as the last few weeks of the sitting roll along before the summer recess. Oh, and the caucus is becoming restive too as this level of mismanagement starts to damage the brand of the “party of the Accountability Act.” Apparently there’s to be an emergency caucus meeting Tuesday morning before Harper flies out, and one can scarcely imagine the words that will be exchanged behind closed doors as these angry MPs line up at the mic.
As far as exits go, it was not inconspicuous, and delivered at that golden hour of five to six on the Friday before a long weekend. With the briefest of press releases, Senator Pamela Wallin announced that she has “recused herself” from Conservative caucus until the conclusion of the forensic audit into her travel expenses was complete – which she has been fully cooperative with, she was quick to point out. And word has it that this was not exactly a voluntary move either, but a pre-emptive move in advance of the audit being released that will show that she has to repay even more than the $40,000 she already has – and that said audit will be forwarded directly to the RCMP. More than that, however, her recusal is a necessary strategic move by the Prime Minister. Why? Because when Tuesday rolls around and the NDP stand up in Question Period to bray about how awful the Senate is and all of these scandal-plagued Senators need to be investigated by some outside body, Harper or his designated back-up PM du jour can stand up and say simply that these individuals are no longer in caucus, so it’s no longer their concern and they’ll let the Senate deal with it. And to a certain extent it’s correct that the Senate has to deal with this on their own and there’s nothing that the Commons or the cabinet can do about it, but Harper can’t wash his hands of this. Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau – they were all his appointments. And under our system of government, it means that he and he alone gets to wear this one, no matter what.
It’s hard to know where to start with the constant revelations on the Senator Mike Duffy file yesterday, because they were coming pretty fast and furious, but the biggest news was that he “voluntarily” left caucus because he had become a distraction. One adds the quotation marks around “voluntary” because word is that the other members of the Conservative Senate caucus were signing a petition to have him ousted, so the writing may have been on the wall. He still wants back in, once everything is sorted and he is somehow vindicated, but considering how he and his lawyers refused to cooperate with the Deloitte auditors, and the fact that he was allegedly making that deal with Nigel Wright in order to make his expenses outrage go away, well, the desire to see his name cleared doesn’t seem to have been top of mind the past few months.
Poor Senator Mike Duffy. Poor, poor Senator Duffy. So poor, in fact, that he had Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff write him a personal cheque for $90,000 to cover his housing allowance repayment. And how did the dear Senator repay Wright for his very generous gift? By bragging around town that Wright had done it, enough that those emails found their way to one of Duffy’s former journalist colleagues. Oh, and such a “gift” would also be against Sec. 17(1) of the Senate’s Conflict of Interest Code. Oops. (And apparently the Ethics Commissioner on the Commons side is now looking into Wright’s actions). Now, there is some ambiguity in those regulations, predicated on what constitutes a gift and just how close of a friendship the pair have – and that came as the bombshell later in the day. After an afternoon of Conservative talking heads peddling the story that the pair were very close, and that Wright helped Duffy out because he was concerned about his financial situation given his health and all, comes the revelation that Duffy tried to say that he got a loan from the Royal Bank and that Wright had no part in this, and more than that, insiders say that Duffy and Wright barely know one another. This despite PMO’s assurances to the contrary, although they tried to paint this in that altruistic light, while simultaneously trying to shift the attention to Senators Brazeau and Harb instead. They were also trying to peddle the line that Harper knew nothing about this – that his own chief of staff cut a cheque to make a noisy and embarrassing story go away, and yet the boss was kept in the dark? Yeah, that’s totally plausible. Tell me again how this is going to end well for any of the parties involved.
Not that it’s a big surprise, but Senator Patrick Brazeau has vowed to fight the order that he repay those living expense in the wake of that Senate audit. While he does have a point that he was cooperative and that he met all four residency requirements, unlike the other two Senators, but that doesn’t change the fact that he spent a mere ten percent of the time. Government leader in the Senate has threatened that if Senator Brazeau and Harb don’t repay their expenses – with interest – immediately, the Senate will garnish their wages, which they can do. It’s also not clear with which court they can try to challenge these audit results and the orders that the Senate itself will be voting to enforce, seeing as Parliament is actually the highest court in the land. Meanwhile, Charlie Angus wants the legal opinion that LeBreton solicited regarding Senator Mike Duffy’s eligibility to sit in the Senate based on his residency – which told LeBreton that everything was fine – made public. (As an aside, one does wonder just how many legal opinions on the Commons side are made public.) LeBreton replied that Duffy owns property and maintains a residence in the province he represents, so case closed. Ah, but perhaps not, as it was revealed last night that that there appears to have been a deal struck between Harper’s chief of staff to help Duffy with his repayment two days before he announced it, and while the PM’s spokesperson has said on the record that no taxpayer funds were used, that likely means party funds. I suppose the party may consider it fair compensation after Duffy did all of that fundraising for them, but yeah, this is totally not helping his case any more than Brazeau and Harb’s fight is helping their own. But seriously, the rest of you – the behaviour of three individual Senators is not actually indicative of the institution as a whole, and shouldn’t undo the good work that the other hundred Senators are actually doing, within the rules. The Senate’s strength as an institution is stronger than the damage caused by a couple of bad apples, and people need to be reminded of that.
The people of Labrador have spoken, and by a rather large margin have decided that Liberal Yvonne Jones should represent them in the House of Commons, rather than forgiving Peter Penashue and giving him another chance. The wisdom on the ground is that this was entirely a local race and had almost nothing to do with the national scene, Justin Trudeau’s leadership and whatnot. Penashue said he accomplished more in two years than any other MP anywhere, which is the kind of hyperbole we’ve come to expect from the guy who apparently did ALL THE THINGS for Labrador, and hence this defeat will be Labrador’s loss. The Conservative Party also issued a graceless statement which nevertheless tried to turn it into some kind of indictment of Trudeau’s leadership, claiming they lost twenty points since his leadership win (though no one has seemed to find any polls which had them over seventy percent), and claiming that majority governments don’t normally win by-elections (which is also not exactly true, considering how many they’ve won to date). Jones’ win means this is the first time that the Liberals have increased their seat count at the ballot box in over a decade (the only other time they’ve increased their count, of course, being when Lise St-Denis defected from the NDP).
The RCMP has confirmed that they are looking into those Senate audits to see if criminal charges are warranted, which Liberal Senate leader James Cowan is encouraged about, as he wants to ensure that due process is being followed. Cowan also noted on CTV’s Question Period that one particular sentence was missing from Senator Mike Duffy’s audit – that the Internal Economy committee said that the guidelines were perfectly clear and that the language was “unambiguous” in Senators Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau’s reports, but somehow not in Duffy’s. In other words, it looks like Senator Tkachuk – who heads the Internal Economy committee – is protecting Duffy, as in two cases they said the very same forms and guidelines were clear and unambiguous. Curious indeed.
In the fallout from those Senate audits, the Conservatives have taken to calling Senator Duffy “a leader” for proactively paying back his expenses – even though it appears that he was tipped off that the finding was likely to go against him. But it also needs to be pointed out that the audits also showed that Duffy was not cooperative with Deloitte, as the other two Senators in question were. So there you have it, folks – “leadership.” Wow. Meanwhile, the opposition parties are calling for the RCMP to take a look over those expense claims, which the RCMP are reportedly set to do. Amid this, the government spent QP yesterday blaming the Liberals in the Senate for stonewalling the attempts to reform the spending rules – to which Senator Dennis Dawson later explained that they were being asked to debate audits and proposed rule changes they hadn’t yet seen yet, even though it seemed that certain Senators on the government side had already seen them in advance. Dawson gave the assurance that when the Senate is back – next week Parliament is not sitting – they will debate the audits and rule changes, as they will have had time to study them. (And it does make the government look dickish for trying to paint them as obstructionist).