Harper goes on offensive amid damaging Senate expense scandal

CALGARY – Prime Minister Stephen Harper struck out against a trio of defiant senators, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, and the “elites” who have tried to stand in his way, in a sharply worded campaign-style speech Friday to the party’s rank-and-file.

Harper’s 45-minute remarks included only a brief reference to the main political headache that has shaken his party since May, the Senate expense scandal. He did not acknowledge the coverup allegation that has kept the controversy in the headlines.

The party leader blamed the “courts” for standing in the way of Senate reform. He appeared to be referring to a recent Quebec appeal court ruling — the Supreme Court of Canada has yet to give its opinion on how to achieve change in the upper chamber.

The appeal court said last month that the federal government had no right to create Senate elections and set term limits without seeking provincial approval.

“These senators have shown little or no remorse for these actions,” Harper said in a reference to Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. The receptive crowd of about 2,500 at a Calgary Stampede grounds convention centre gave Harper standing ovations as he spoke about the issue.

“In private life, you would be fired for doing anything resembling this…and Liberal senators continue to block action. The Senate should to the right thing, now and suspend those Senators without pay.”

The lion’s share of Harper’s remarks were focused on extolling the party’s record. He reminded the audience of promises kept from the 2006 campaign – lowering the GST, the child-tax benefit and the Federal Accountability Act.

It was the speech that Harper was supposed to deliver in June, setting the stage for the second half of his majority mandate. But the convention was postponed due to the devastating Alberta floods — a fact mentioned several times over the course of the night.

He touched on some of the same themes that were in the recent throne speech, suggesting the Conservatives are the only party capable of capitalizing on the country’s many assets. He highlighted the recently negotiated free trade deal with the European Union.

“In a world that is struggling, Canada is rising, being steadily lifted by a rising tide,” he said.

“Our sound finances, our stable politics, our expanding network for trade relationships, our natural wealth and the growing demand for it worldwide.”

Harper said throughout that the Liberals and NDP stood in the way of the many initiatives his party has brought forward – crime bills, support for the military and tax cuts.

“Could Justin Trudeau run the economy? In 2015, friends, we’re not choosing the winner of Canadian Idol…we’re choosing someone to lead our economy,” he said, to laughter and applause in the room.

“And I have to say, the only trade policy Justin Trudeau has been working on is the marijuana trade.”

The prime minister portrayed his party and himself as that of the average Canadian, taking jabs at lobbyists, academics, and the public service.

“In our party, public service must mean private sacrifice. That’s why Laureen and first left our home here in Calgary.

“We didn’t go to Ottawa to join private clubs or become part of some “elite.” That’s not who you are; it’s not who we are.”

But one of Canada’s elites, millionaire Bay Street businessman and former chief of staff Nigel Wright, continues to figure at the centre of the prime minister’s political challenges.

Although Harper has placed full blame on Wright’s shoulders for the secret repayment of Duffy’s $90,000 in contested expenses, other key conservatives aren’t following that script.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay offered moral support to Wright on Friday, as Employment Minister Jason Kenney had a day earlier.

“I’ve know Nigel a long time, he’s a very principled individual, he’s somebody who is honest, he’s worked hard for our party in the past,” MacKay said.

“That’s my opinion, that’s my view of Nigel.”

Both Kenney and MacKay are viewed as potential contenders to succeed Harper in the future, and each have a loyal following within the party.

Ontario MP Gord Brown echoed the sentiment on Wright.

“I’ve known him for many, many years,” Brown said. “We’ve been in politics together since the ’80s, and he’s a man of high integrity and it’s disappointing that all of this has unfolded, but I stand behind Nigel.”

Harper didn’t address Wright or the repayment issue in his speech.

On another front, junior minister Maxime Bernier – a popular figure among rank-and-file Conservatives – floated the idea that the party ought to hold a referendum on whether or not to abolish the Senate.

The premier of Saskatchewan, now an avowed opponent of the Senate, weighed in. “Not a bad idea Maxime Bernier,” Brad Wall wrote on Twitter.

“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Government Senate leader Claude Carignan.

“Right now we have a reference at the Supreme Court, we should respect the Supreme Court and respect its judgment, which will take about a year and then we can discuss the method that the Supreme Court will identify for us.”

The evolving Senate scandal, meanwhile, continued to throw curveballs Friday: the RCMP filed court documents alleging Wallin committed fraud and breach of trust by filing fraudulent expense claims.

The Senate also revealed it paid $390,500 for the independent audit that exposed those questionable claims, bringing to more than $500,000 the cost of reviewing the expenses of Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau and former Liberal senator Mac Harb.

The trials and tribulations of the upper chamber, though hard to miss, were far from the only issue occupying the minds of Conservative delegates.

Behind closed doors at the convention, party members appeared to put to rest a long-standing debate within the ranks – for now.

A recurring bid to change the leadership rules to adopt a system that is closer to one-member, one-vote was once again defeated, meaning it won’t go to the larger convention floor for debate.

A pointed resolution that would forbid resolutions from coming back to conventions if they’ve been defeated twice before will be discussed at the plenary session on Saturday.

Currently, each Conservative riding association in the country has an equally weighted say in electing the leader. That was a rule negotiated between Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance when the parties merged in late 2003, designed to prevent a candidate from swamping the race with support from a specific region – such as Alberta.

“I feel quite strongly and quite passionately that we have to have equality and inclusiveness in our party,” said MacKay.

“The party has spoken, and the democratic principles are alive and well.”

Delegates also defeated a resolution to reject the supply management system for dairy, eggs and poultry. However, a motion to officially condemn sex-selective abortions passed an initial debate and will proceed to the floor on Saturday.

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