CALGARY – The man who oversees the Conservative Party’s finances says he refused to pay off Sen. Mike Duffy’s contested expenses, contradicting the version of events provided to police by the prime minister’s former chief of staff.
Sen. Irving Gerstein, the chairman of the Conservative Fund Canada and former jewelry chain titan, delivered his report on the party’s finances at the close of the party’s biennial convention on Saturday.
For the first time, he addressed the discussions he had with Stephen Harper’s ex-chief of staff Nigel Wright about paying back Duffy’s living expenses.
Gerstein appeared to back Harper’s line of attack on Wright — that he was the only one seeking to cover Duffy’s bill.
“I made it absolutely clear to Nigel Wright that the Conservative Fund Canada would not pay for Senator Duffy’s disputed expenses and it never did,” Gerstein told the crowd of roughly 1,500, to enthusiastic applause.
But Wright’s lawyers had told the RCMP during the summer that the “Conservative party was initially going to repay the money for Duffy from a Conservative fund when it was believed the amount he owed was $32,000.” When it became clear it would be nearly triple that amount, Wright decided to pay out of his own pocket.
Neither Gerstein nor the party ever revealed those discussions, even when the opposition parties were pressing the government for more information in the spring. When he would have informed Harper about the matter is still unknown — Harper has insisted he was kept in the dark.
Gerstein also never said publicly he had paid $13,000 worth of Duffy’s legal fees earlier this year — Duffy revealed that in an explosive speech last Tuesday. Some senior Conservatives have griped about how Harper’s team has not been more forthcoming with what it knows.
“At the request of Nigel Wright, the Fund did agree to pay legal fees limited to a maximum $12,000 plus HST, because at the time Senator Duffy was a member of the Conservative caucus, and as you know the fund sometimes assists caucus members with legal expenses, as do other parties,” Gerstein added.
Gerstein’s remarks — and a brief nod to the Senate in Harper’s keynote speech Friday night — were among the only times the controversy came up formally at the convention.
Saturday’s agenda was taken up with policy discussions — with the labour movement finding itself in the party’s crosshairs. Delegates supported several policies to restrict the reach of unions and require tougher reporting standards.
A half-dozen resolutions passed with little dissent. One in particular appeared to repudiate the Canada Labour Code and provincial labour laws that uphold the concept of mandatory union-due payments.
“The Conservative Party believes that mandatory union membership and forced financial contributions as a condition of employment limit the economic freedom of Canadians and stifle economic growth,” reads resolution.
Another motion would require federally regulated unions to report on their political and media donations, and on their activist campaigns, while allowing union members to withhold dues devoted to those activities. The resolution passed easily.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who oversees the federal government’s negotiations with public service unions, said he respected the opinions of the delegates.
The government is looking at new measures affecting federal employees, including a mechanism to declare essential services and another to revise sick-leave benefits.
“I think we have to have a grown-up relationship with the unions but that doesn’t mean kowtowing to their every whim and demand,” said Clement.
“That day is over. I’m going to have respectful bargaining of course, but at the same time I’m going to reflect the public interest and the interest of taxpayers.”
Protesters with the Alberta Federation of Labour demonstrated in an empty parking lot across from the convention.
“I hope that people will realize that a lot of the benefits that they have today are a result of the union movement and they affect everybody whether they are a union member or not.”
Delegates to the biennial convention also voted in favour of classically conservative policies that touched on abortion, euthanasia, and firearms, hoping to influence the party’s 2015 election platform.
A motion condemning sex-selective abortion passed with overwhelming support among delegates. Earlier this year, a group of Conservative MPs kept a similar controversial motion from reaching the Commons.
“Right now in the world there are over 200 million missing girls because of the practice of using ultrasounds to find out if its a boy or girl,” said Vancouver-area MP Mark Warawa.
“Girls have equal value as boys, we should not be discriminating against them in any form.”
There was a closer vote on a policy that “the Conservative Party will not support any legislation to legalize euthanasia or assisted suicide.” It ultimately passed, but one delegate from Nova Scotia encouraged delegates to put themselves in the shoes of a person dying in pain who can’t find palliative care.
Other policy resolutions passed Saturday included:
—The government will resist domestic or international pressure to delegitimize firearms ownership
—Those convicted of more than one serious crime would serve their sentences consecutively, something the government is already looking at doing.
—Allowing faith-based organizations to bar groups whose views they disagree with from using their facilities.
The party and the prime minister’s office instituted strict restrictions on the media during the convention, at one point roping off the area around delegates to prevent interviews on the floor of the convention. Security guards policed the halls to ensure journalists were not approaching delegates-only areas.