OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has some last-minute advice for senators as they prepare to finally determine the fate of embattled colleagues Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau: Give them the boot.
After weeks of emotional, often explosive debate, a government motion to suspend the trio without pay — but with their health, dental and insurance benefits intact — is scheduled to take place in the Senate at 5:30 p.m. ET.
The suspensions — punishment for allegedly claiming improper living and travel expenses — would last for the duration of the parliamentary session, which could continue for the next two years.
“They have not acted in a way that respects taxpayers’ dollars, and done so on a very large scale, and the consequence for that, in our judgment, should be that they should be removed from the public payroll,” Harper told the Commons just three hours before the scheduled vote.
“We urge the Senate to do that immediately.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had different advice for his party’s senators: abstain.
“I’m telling the senators that I don’t think that they should be either defending these three people who have abused the public purse and the public trust, nor should they be aiding Mr. Harper in his attempt to whitewash what’s gone on here,” Trudeau said.
Until now, Liberal senators have opposed the government’s bid to suspend the trio, arguing that it could prejudice the RCMP investigation into the three and that it violates the three senators’ rights to due process and to be presumed innocent until found guilty.
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan has moved an amendment to the government motion, which would refer the proposed suspensions to a committee where the trio could be given a fair hearing. That amendment is also to be voted upon Tuesday evening.
A motion to end debate on the proposed suspensions passed easily Monday by a vote of 51-34, with five Conservative senators breaking ranks with the government — a likely sign that the suspension motion itself will pass easily.
Down the hall from the Commons, Harper’s message was repeated by the government leader in the Senate.
“We want to see that the people that didn’t respect the rules … pay the price and I think it’s time to vote,” Sen. Claude Carignan said on his way into the chamber.
While the vote will end debate over the suspensions, the bombshells lobbed by Duffy during that debate continue to reverberate.
Harper was grilled Tuesday over a leaked letter that reveals the RCMP is seeking copies of emails and documents cited by Duffy that “may potentially be evidence of criminal wrongdoing by others,” including some in the Prime Minister’s Office.
In particular, investigators are looking for emails related to a “script” Duffy said he was given by the PMO to cover up the fact that Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff at the time, gave him $90,000 to repay his disallowed expenses.
Duffy has alleged that Wright, under instruction from the prime minister to make a political embarrassment go away, orchestrated a “monstrous” conspiracy to cover up the transaction. He claims PMO concocted a false story about him taking out a bank loan.
Harper continued to maintain Tuesday, as he has done from the outset, that he knew nothing about the transaction or the coverup, although it has emerged that as many as a dozen other PMO staffers and top party officials did know about it.
“I did not know about any payment from Mr. Wright to Mr. Duffy or about the story to deceive Canadians about that. I don’t approve that … and had my authorization been sought, it would not have been granted.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took turns questioning why Harper has not fired other PMO staffers or the party’s chief fundraiser, Sen. Irving Gerstein, who participated in the deception by failing to tell the prime minister what was going on.
Some portions of the RCMP letter are blacked out, including the name of the person to whom it was sent. But it refers at one point to “your client.”
Harper said the letter appears to be to Duffy’s lawyer “urging him to co-operate with the RCMP investigation. Of course, we would all urge that.”
Pressed by Mulcair to say whether the PMO will hand over to police all emails and other documents in its possession, Harper added: “This office will give the RCMP any and all assistance that it requires.”
While it’s Duffy who’s brought the Senate expenses scandal to Harper’s doorstep, it was Brazeau who injected drama into the final debate late Monday on the suspension motion.
He made a last-ditch, emotional appeal for senators to reconsider his case, arguing that he’s the victim of what he called “a shameless farce,” a “show trial” and a “gong show.”
In a speech that left his staff members sitting in the gallery in tears, Brazeau bitterly denounced former Conservative colleagues for conspiring to run him out of the Senate, for misrepresenting the findings of an independent audit which found no wrongdoing on his part, for repeatedly ignoring his pleas for due process and spreading rumours about his troubled personal life.
His voice choking with emotion as he made what will likely be his last speech in the Senate, Brazeau directed some remarks to his children.
“It is very important that you understand that I am not guilty of what some of these people are accusing me of,” he said.
“It is very important that you know that I am not a thief, a scammer, a drunken Indian, a drug addict, a failed experiment or a human tragedy.”