Senate scandal to haunt federal Conservatives as convention gets underway

OTTAWA – Supporters are expected to treat Stephen Harper to a Halloween boost at this weekend’s party convention in Calgary, but angst is growing among caucus members and veteran Conservatives over the handling of the Senate scandal.

Several senior Tory sources told The Canadian Press that they are upset with how the Prime Minister’s Office is managing the controversy over the party’s arrangements to pay Sen. Mike Duffy’s contested expenses and legal bills.

Duffy has largely managed to dictate how the story has emerged, while the Conservatives frantically try to catch up, struggling to get out in front of developments.

“I think over the next week or two, additional details will be coming out — hopefully — because that’s the message I’m getting from Canadians,” said MP Mark Warawa.

“They want to know the full details, full disclosure, what was the cheque for and is there anybody else that’s involved with this.”

Go-to ministers such as John Baird, James Moore, Peter MacKay, Jason Kenney and Pierre Poilievre have pointedly stayed away from the Senate fray during question period, leaving Harper and parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra to fend off the opposition.

But in the spring, some of those key ministers gave answers in the Commons that later turned out to be evasive or untrue. Chris Woodcock, a former PMO staffer who allegedly knew about the Wright-Duffy deal, did daily question period coaching with Harper and his cabinet during that time.

“We’re surprised there weren’t more details provided — this was not what we were told,” said one Conservative, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Said another: “The criticism is people don’t know what’s coming next — the slow tearing off of the Band-Aid is frustrating.”

“We’ve just concluded the biggest deal in Canadian history and it’s been completely overtaken,” griped another MP — a reference to the Canada-EU free trade deal that was supposed to be the centrepiece of the government’s agenda.

When asked Wednesday about the revelations earlier this week that Duffy’s $13,500 legal bill was paid for by the party, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said, “Quite frankly, I don’t know what all the facts are.”

Earlier this week, MP Peter Goldring suggested another approach to dealing with the details.

“I don’t know about all of the background on that information and that’s really why it should be put in front of an authority, in front of a board, in front of a discovery so that we can find out what is the truth here,” he said.

On the convention, Conservative MPs had mixed reactions as to how the membership was feeling.

“Party members are expecting that sanctions be taken (against) those who engaged in inappropriate expense claims, that’s what I’m hearing,” said International Development Minister Christian Paradis.

“I don’t think they’re happy,” MP Brad Trost said when asked how the Conservative “base” is feeling about the payment of Duffy’s legal fees.

But if there’s any suggestion that the scandal has grassroots party members steering clear of the upcoming convention, the enthusiastic registration numbers to date would suggest otherwise.

Party president John Walsh said approximately 3,000 members are expected to attend Harper’s speech Friday evening — a record turnout for the movement, particularly considering the event was postponed by spring flooding in Alberta.

“Our party is pretty dedicated at our conventions to talking about policy and constitutional amendments, we spend a lot of time in our agenda doing that, and our people are very eager to do that,” Walsh said in an interview.

“Our membership is a very loyal membership, they want to come and hear from the prime minister, they want to come and meet caucus members to be able to talk about the issues.”

One of those issues is the Senate — reform of the upper chamber being a favourite policy inside the party. There is actually no formal proposal to be debated, but it’s sure to be a hot topic in the corridors.

Among the formal policy proposals, one motion calls for elimination of the Indian Act. Another says the party should reject any legislation to approve euthanasia. One controversial motion proposed the party condemn sex selection during pregnancy — seen by some as an attempt to reopen the abortion debate.

There are also several policy proposals on labour issues, suggesting a crackdown on unions using money on political campaigns, among other measures.

Walsh said he’s heard from many members, and the Senate scandal isn’t necessarily top of mind.

“Members and conventioneers are eager to hear from the prime minister and from caucus what the agenda will be for the next two years leading up to the next election, and the issues that truly affect Canadians lives, their jobs and their families and their overall well-being,” Walsh said.

A recurring debate at Conservative conventions has centred on the rules surrounding leadership races. A holdover rule from the Progressive Conservative party has been that each riding get an equal say in a vote — a principle passionately defended by MacKay in particular.

A motion from Alberta would change that, to give more weight to bigger ridings — and theoretically those from western Canada. This time around, the debate seems to be quieter going into the convention.

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