National Affairs column
With his latest bombshells Mike Duffy has killed the last Conservative hope that the government's mess in the Senate can be mopped up anytime soon, let alone in time for the weekend's national party convention.
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His assertions give rise to a new and even more damaging set of questions than those already asked and never fully answered by the prime minister.
Here are some of them:
Not only did the PMO hand Duffy money to reimburse his housing allowance, he also received $13,560 to cover the legal costs associated with his defence. He has a copy of the cancelled cheque - signed by Conservative party lawyer Arthur Hamilton - to back up his claim.
Question: If Harper believed Duffy to be guilty of a gross breach of the senate rules - of the kind that the prime minister argues warrants his suspension without pay from the institution - why would his top political operator be willing to spare no expense to reimburse all the expenses related to the offence on his behalf ? And if, as the cheque suggests, at least part
of the money came from the Conservative party, was the PMO using funds given by the party donors to fool the same party donors into thinking that the government was running a tight ship when it was not ?
Harper has always maintained that until the story of Nigel Wright's role in the reimbursement became public, he had taken Duffy at his word when he said he had taken a personal loan to pay back his housing allowance. But Duffy claims that the line about the loan was cooked up by PMO spin doctors. If, as the senator further asserts, he has a paper trail to document that allegation - and he has yet to produce it - he will, in effect, have Harper cornered. For taking the prime minister at his word, if he was gullible enough to buy a false story from his own palace guard, what does that say about his management of his own office?
And if PMO staff assumed that it was acceptable to encourage a senator to lie, what does that say about the ethical rules that the prime minister enforces within his own ranks? Even before Duffy filled in a few more blanks in what increasingly amounts to an extraordinary tale of deception there were signs of incipient panic in the Conservative war room.
Just a week ago the notion that Harper's majority in the Senate could fail to deliver the decisive sentence that he had ordered his troops to execute against Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau was considered unthinkable.
But if the Conservative leadership in the Senate had had its ducks lined up behind the suspension motion, it would not have muddied the waters - as House leader Claude Carignan has been doing - by floating offers of more lenient penalties.
And if public opinion were squarely behind the prime minister, Harper would not suddenly be spending time on talk radio, where he has been having trouble keeping his story straight.
In an interview on Monday, Harper claimed that he had fired Wright. Until now he had maintained that his chief of staff had resigned.
It may be a matter of nuances but given how concise Harper's accounting of his role in the senate scandal has been, one can only wonder how he can trip over so few lines. On the same day the rift in Conservative ranks expanded, with former environment minister Peter Kent urging senators to resist the call to suspend their colleagues.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty evaded questions about the pros and cons of the suspension, coming out squarely instead in favour of the abolition of the Senate.
Up until now the end game of the frantic manoeuvring of the past two weeks had been to clear the air on the Senate front in time for this week's Conservative convention. But a self-congratulatory weekend is just not on anymore. Given how quickly things are unravelling on Parliament Hill, that may yet turn out to be the least of Harper's concerns.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.