Editorial Exchange - from the Toronto Star.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had plenty to say earlier this year when he was pressed in Parliament to explain why his former chief of staff Nigel Wright secretly cut Sen. Mike Duffy a cheque for $90,172 to pay back improperly claimed expenses.
Alert to the damage the scandal could do to the Conservative party, Harper assured Canadians that Wright acted alone. He said that no one else in the Prime Minister’s Office was aware of the deal. He said Wright wanted to make sure taxpayers weren’t stiffed for inappropriate expenses. And Harper’s minions let it be known that Wright was just doing a cash-strapped buddy a favour.
By now, of course, Canadians know that none of this stands up to serious scrutiny. Harper’s credibility is being shredded by this scandal, and the Tory brand continues to suffer even as the government struggles to turn the page. Rather than continue to bob and weave, Harper should tell Parliament what he knows about the PMO’s role in the Duffy bailout and the Conservative party’s role as well. He should also release all documents and emails connected with the deal.
By kicking off the new session of Parliament with the same stonewalling that closed the last session, Harper is digging a deeper hole.
He repeated the shopworn mantra that Wright had acted alone and took the blame. He also sought credit for brokering the Canada/European Union trade deal and the Tory economic agenda.
Meanwhile in the Red Chamber, chastened Conservative senators were scrambling to protect what’s left of their threadbare “dignity and reputation” by considering suspending three high-profile Harper appointees, Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, for the rest of this parliamentary session for “gross negligence” in managing their expenses. Collectively they have repaid some $277,000. Even so, Harper’s credibility as a judge of character has taken a drubbing. And there’s no sign that the worst may be over.
Duffy’s lawyer Donald Bayne has accused the PMO of first approving Duffy’s expenses, then when the spending scandal blew up, of orchestrating a scheme to “sweep a political embarrassment to their Tory base under the rug” by bailing Duffy out and shielding him from the scrutiny of an independent audit. The PMO threatened Duffy with expulsion from the Senate if he didn’t play along, his lawyer said. Now Duffy is being unlawfully scapegoated, he says.
Every twist in this political drama speaks to the government’s disregard for political accountability, respect for the taxpayers and basic transparency.
The RCMP appear to have gotten closer to the truth than opposition MPs, and their findings challenge key government assertions.
While Wright may initially have acted alone, the RCMP reports that a slew of people in the PMO knew of the payment. Wright recalls telling three others about it. He also told Sen. Irving Gerstein, chair of the Conservative Fund Canada, the party’s fundraising arm. At some point this reached deep into the PMO and the party.
Moreover, far from being a spontaneous act of generosity to make sure taxpayers weren’t on the hook, Wright’s payment looks more like a Plan B to get Duffy out of trouble. Thanks to the RCMP we know that the Tory fund was prepared to repay what Duffy owed when they thought it was $32,000. But $90,000-plus was deemed to be too much to ask the fund to pay. Had the fund ponied up, taxpayers would indeed have been “on the hook” insofar as parties benefit from per-vote taxpayer subsidies, and donations are subsidized by tax credits.
And as for the claim that Wright was doing a buddy a favour, his lawyers say they weren’t friends.
Given what has come to light so far, Conservatives have reason to dread what may follow. In this case, regretting nothing is not a winning strategy.