The PM, Mike Duffy and the latest twist in our national reality TV show

The sketch: Stephen Harper hopes you will not be distracted by the wildly entertaining spectacle of Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright

The Prime Minister does not want to talk about Mike Duffy. Alas, he and his side are having a hard time not talking about Mike Duffy.

Would that it were so, he might’ve had this afternoon, his first prominent appearance in the House since June, to freely and happily boast of the trade agreement he agreed to on Friday. If only his government’s leader in the Senate hadn’t announced on Thursday that the Conservatives intended to have three of Mr. Harper’s appointees—Mr. Duffy, along with Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau—suspended from the Senate without pay. (If only he hadn’t appointed Mike Duffy to the Senate. If only he hadn’t waited so long to refer Senate reform to the Supreme Court. If only…)

Thursday’s initiative had the trifling flaws of seeming somewhat unfair and rather unnecessary—Why suspend Mr. Duffy now? What do we know now that we didn’t know in the spring, when he was free to take a seat in the red chamber? On what grounds are senators now suspendable?—but it also apparently provoked Mr. Duffy to respond. And so this morning, over the course of a rather entertaining 50 minutes, Mr. Duffy’s lawyer, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, ventured some rather provocative allegations: that Nigel Wright said Mr. Duffy expense claims were legitimate and that Mr. Duffy was threatened with expulsion from the Senate if he did not go along with Mr. Wright’s plan to have the expenses repaid.

Thus did our national reality TV show see its latest twist. And thus were the New Democrats teed up for Question Period.

“Mike Duffy’s lawyer today spoke at length and provided lots of new details. According to him, documents from the PMO outlined how this involved, ‘…cash for repayment,’ ” the NDP’s Megan Leslie related first. “Can the Prime Minister confirm that his office threatened to kick Mike Duffy out of the Senate if he did not go along with their scheme?”

The Prime Minister stood here and ventured first a vague platitude. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “we have been very clear that we expect all parliamentarians to respect the letter and spirit of any rules regarding expenses and if they do not respect that they can expect there to be consequences and accountability for their actions.”

Then to something else entirely. “I will just say that I have noticed, obviously, NDP members’ instant opposition to the Canada-Europe trade deal,” he said. “I guess the reason we see them asking these kinds of questions is because on the big issues they are wrong.”

So if the opposition was to insist on questioning the conduct of the government, the government would insist on talking about its trade deal. But it was at least somewhat problematic for the Prime Minister here that the NDP released a statement on Friday offering general support for the idea of trade with Europe and that the Prime Minister’s Employment Minister then publicly welcomed their “relatively balanced” position.

Ms. Leslie persisted and, after three responses, Mr. Harper motioned for his parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, to take over. “Honestly, NDP members actually have absolutely no leg to stand on,” Mr. Calandra declared. “When they had a chance to demand reform in the Senate, what did they ask for? They asked for six seats of their own in the Senate. That is the reform they asked for.”

Except that the NDP does not seem to have done any such thing. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the claim here is based on the governance accord signed by the Liberals and New Democrats in 2008, but the agreement includes no such commitment (the New Democrats were, instead, promised six cabinet ministers and six parliamentary secretaries). Rather, the only reference to the Senate is that “both parties are committed to restoring the integrity, transparency and efficiency of the appointments process in the Public Service and in federal bodies like the Supreme Court, the Senate and Commissions like the CRTC” and that “the Prime Minister will consult the Leader of the NDP as appropriate on appointments.”

Of course, the NDP would’ve been able to get away with this dastardly plan to bring integrity, transparency and efficiency to the Senate appointments process if the Prime Minister hadn’t prorogued Parliament to avoid a confidence vote, thus enabling himself to appoint Mr. Duffy to the Senate on the day in December five years ago.

Mr. Harper would return to his feet when the floor was turned over to Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale, Mr. Goodale insisting here that we dwell on the fact that the Prime Minister once told the House that no one in his office had known about Mr. Wright’s deal with Mr. Duffy, an assertion now at odds with what Mr. Wright’s lawyers told the RCMP.

Mr. Harper pleaded ignorance. “I answered based on the information I had at that time,” he said. “Of course, the reality is that these actions were the responsibility of Mr. Wright. Mr. Wright has accepted full responsibility for his actions, as he should. In the meantime, the government is, of course, focused on making sure we create jobs and growth for Canadians, including the biggest trade agreement that we have ever had, the trade agreement that we concluded this week in Europe.”

“Mr. Speaker,” sighed Mr. Goodale, “Canadians would appreciate a focus on ethics.”

It is probably necessary to note that it is not entirely clear whether any particular wrong has been committed here. It is entirely possible that the RCMP will decline to press charges or that, if it does, whoever is charged will be found not guilty. Mr. Duffy is out of the Conservative caucus and Mr. Wright is out of the Prime Minister’s Office and the government’s man in the Senate is trying to banish Mr. Duffy from the upper chamber and yet this might all only amount to some questionable expenses and a very badly managed bit of theatre. Possibly precipitated by one senator’s debatable ties to the province he was supposed to represent.

All of which might render the whole spectacle that much more ridiculous.

After three questions from Mr. Goodale, Mr. Harper ceded the floor back to his parliamentary secretary and Mr. Calandra, who is hopefully at least in line for a prime cabinet post as a result of his current lot, dutifully waved his hands, shuffled his feet and hummed a few bars of his own take on the Maple Leaf Forever. Jobs, growth and economic prosperity in all regions of this country! Unleashing the potential of our small businesses, our medium businesses and our large job creators! A strong, stable, national Conservative majority government! The best Prime Minister in the world! A Minister of Finance who has won awards! The strongest cabinet in Canadian history!

Shortly thereafter, he invoked the “$21-billion carbon tax.” Later, he started talking about John Turner.

“I can understand why the New Democrats do not want to talk about the economy,” he proclaimed of the official opposition. “It is because they know nothing about the economy. I know they do not want to talk about jobs and economic growth because it is another topic they know nothing about. When it comes to community safety, we know that they are not interested in that at all.”

And if the Conservatives don’t want to talk about Mike Duffy… well, that’s just because they have so much else they would rather be talking about.

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