Stephen Harper pleads ignorance and claims clarity

Twenty-four questions for the Prime Minister

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday,Jan 28, 2013 .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld</p>

Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday,Jan 28, 2013 .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Thomas Mulcair stood, folded his hands in front of him at his waist, paused, turned to look directly at the Prime Minister and stated his question.

“Mr. Speaker,” the NDP leader asked, “on what date and at what time was the Prime Minister informed that Nigel Wright had made a payment to Conservative Senator Mike Duffy?”

The Prime Minister stood and ventured that he had already been “very clear” on this matter, but, for the record, he explained himself again here.  “This matter came to my attention two weeks ago after speculation appeared in the media,” he said. “On Wednesday, May 15, I was told about it. At that very moment, I demanded that my office ensure that the public was informed, and they were informed appropriately.”

Of “this matter,” there would be 24 questions this afternoon for the Prime Minister. He would stand and respond to 22 of those questions. He would directly answer maybe nine or ten.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair asked with his second opportunity, “when did the Prime Minister first speak with Nigel Wright about Mike Duffy’s expenses?”

Mr. Harper did not seem to directly answer this, so Mr. Mulcair restated the question and added a third. “How many times,” he wondered of the Prime Minister, “did he speak with Nigel Wright in the week preceding his resignation?”

Mr. Harper seemed to hear an insinuation that displeased him. “Mr. Speaker, if the leader of the NDP is suggesting that I had any information to the contrary from Mr. Wright prior to this, that is completely false,” the Prime Minister declared. “I learned of this on May 15 and immediately made this information public, as I have said many times.”

Mr. Mulcair leaned forward and attempted to clarify for the Prime Minister what was occurring here. “Mr. Speaker, we are asking very simple, straightforward questions and the Prime Minister is not answering them. That is the problem. Canadians want answers.”

In fairness to the Prime Minister, this is not generally what Question Period is used for.

Mr. Mulcair wondered what instructions Mr. Harper had given to Mr. Wright or the members of his cabinet as it pertained to Mr. Duffy’s expenses. Mr. Harper said that he had given no such instructions.

Now Mr. Trudeau picked up the questioning. “Will the Prime Minister,” the Liberal leader wondered, “commit to releasing all records, emails, documents and correspondence relating to any arrangement between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy?”

The Prime Minister now responded as if this question had not just been asked. “Mr. Speaker, the arrangement in question that the leader speaks to was of course between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy,” Mr. Harper explained. “It is a matter of examination by the ethics commissioners in each chamber of this Parliament, and obviously, should we be asked to produce any kind of information, we would be happy to do so.”

Mr. Trudeau helpfully clarified the words he had spoken a moment earlier—”Mr. Speaker, we are asking for that information”—then restated his question and added a request that Mr. Wright’s cheque be tabled too. Mr. Harper did not respond directly, but deferred again to the ethics commissioner and the Senate ethics officer.

“Will the Prime Minister commit,” Mr. Trudeau asked, “to having everyone involved in this affair, including himself, testify about their involvement in a public forum, under oath?”

Mr. Harper did not directly answer. “Mr. Speaker, the facts here are very straightforward,” the Prime Minister claimed before pronouncing shame on Mr. Trudeau’s open acknowledgement of the current seat distribution in the Senate.

Back then to Mr. Mulcair who wondered if Mr. Harper had ever spoken to Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen about this matter?  “As a matter of fact, Mr. Speaker, no, I did not,” Mr. Harper said.

Did the Prime Minister, Mr. Mulcair wondered, ever discuss this matter with his cabinet? Mr. Harper shook his head, grimaced and declined to answer directly.

Mr. Mulcair restated his question. Mr. Harper did not directly answer.

When, Mr. Mulcair wondered, did the Prime Minister become aware of an agreement with Mr. Wright? Mr. Harper explained that it was May 15.

Who, Mr. Mulcair wondered, had spoken with Mr. Duffy about withholding information from auditors? Mr. Harper shrugged and shook his head. “Mr. Speaker, I have no information to that effect,” he pleaded.

Mr. Mulcair turned more specific. “Mr. Speaker, Mike Duffy wrote in an email that after being paid $90,000, he ‘stayed silent on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office.’ Who told Mike Duffy to remain silent?”

Mr. Harper shook his head, turned up his palms and again pleaded ignorance. “Mr. Speaker, these are not matters that I am privy to.”

Mr. Mulcair stood for his 12th question. “Mr. Speaker, once Mike Duffy received the $90,000 from the Prime Minister’s Office, he stopped co-operating with Deloitte, which was the auditor in the file,” he reviewed. “Was that part of the deal with Mike Duffy?”

Mr. Harper now quibbled with Mr. Mulcair’s premise—the cheque in question had not transferred money from the Prime Minister’s Office, but from Mr. Wright, Mr. Harper explained. “Get your facts straight!” a voice from the Conservative side heckled in Mr. Mulcair’s direction.

Mr. Mulcair then quibbled with Mr. Harper’s distinction before adding two new questions. “Do they have a copy of the cheque? Has the Prime Minister or anyone in his office seen that cheque?”

Mr. Harper returned to the matter over which he and Mr. Mulcair were quibbling, failing to answer directly the questions now asked. Apparently taking that as a no to both of his questions, Mr. Mulcair piled on as the Conservatives moaned and groaned. “Mr. Speaker, if he has never seen the cheque, how can the Prime Minister rise in this House and tell us that it is a personal cheque? How does he know that it is not from a trust account? How does he know that if he has never seen the cheque?”

Mr. Harper deferred to Mr. Wright. “Mr. Speaker, this is a matter of public record, as Mr. Wright himself has said. I can certainly assure the member there is no such money that has gone out of our office or out of PMO budget.”

Back to Mr. Trudeau. Of the Prime Minister’s insistence that he had known nothing of a deal between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy before May 15, the Liberal leader noted that CTV had reported the existence of a deal on the night of May 14 and that the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr. Harper again asserted that he knew nothing of a cheque until the morning of May 15.

Why then, Mr. Trudeau wondered, had it taken Mr. Harper another five days to dismiss his chief of staff?

“Mr. Speaker, by his own admission, Mr. Wright made a very serious error. For that, he has accepted full, sole responsibility,” Mr. Harper reviewed. “He has agreed to resign. He is subject to an investigation and examination by the Ethics Commissioner, on which I anticipate he will be fully co-operative.”

Mr. Trudeau, apparently unconvinced by the official timeline, now conveyed his indignation. Mr. Harper then attempted a remarkable claim of simplicity and clarity. “Mr. Speaker, the facts here are reasonably simple whether or not the opposition or anybody else particularly likes them,” he declared. “The facts are simple and they are clear.”

Except for the fact that so many of the facts about whatever happened here remain unclear, this much might actually be true. Mr. Wright, as Mr. Harper explained, assisted in the repayment of Mr. Duffy’s expenses. That repayment, Mr. Harper maintained, was not something of which he was aware until May 15. Those might well be actual facts. But it is still everything else about this affair that has yet to be explained, every other question that remains to be answered.

After two more questions from Mr. Mulcair—one about the involvement of a PMO lawyer, the other about the matter of Pamela Wallin—the New Democrats sent up Nathan Cullen to, once again, play the part of Lt. Daniel Kaffee.

“Let me remind the Prime Minister of what he said when he was in opposition,” Mr. Cullen graciously offered before proceeding with a dramatic reading. “He said, “The Prime Minister personally ordered adscam done and chose the people who executed the plan. At the very least he fostered an attitude within the party, chose the managers who committed these crimes and completely and utterly failed to exercise any oversight, supervision or leadership. In the end it does not really matter. He is the leader and a leader is responsible for the actions of the people he leads.’ ”

Mr. Cullen took a step forward and put the question. “Does he still agree with these comments?”

The New Democrats stood and cheered. Mr. Harper remained seated. Instead, it was James Moore who stood, the Heritage Minister now apparently seeing a chance to audition for a cabinet promotion before this summer’s shuffle.

“Mr. Speaker, we certainly agree that Canadians expect and deserve accountability. That is why the Prime Minister, both in his entire term as prime minister and again here today, has shown accountability and leadership that Canadians have come to expect,” Mr. Moore proclaimed, pointing with both index fingers. “The Leader of the Opposition asked questions. The Prime Minister has answered.”

Huzzah. By that most basic standard of accountability—and excluding those questions which the Prime Minister did not directly answer—everything here is finally fine.