The Commons: Stephen Harper answers at least one question

So at least we know that Nigel Wright said he made no offer to any other senator

With the 13th question of the fourth day of the cross-examination of Stephen Harper, lead prosecutor Thomas Mulcair wondered if Pamela Wallin had been offered the “same deal” that Nigel Wright had offered to Mike Duffy.

Various Conservatives scoffed at this question, but it was apparently something that the Prime Minister himself had wondered.

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Wright informed me of his payment to senator Duffy on May 15,” Mr. Harper now explained. “I immediately required that matter to be disclosed, both to the Ethics Commissioner and to the public. At the same time, I did ask Mr. Wright whether he had any similar arrangements or discussed any similar arrangements or had any similar arrangements with other senators and he said ‘no.’ ”

Mr. Mulcair now patronized.

“See,” he said to the Prime Minister, “it is not that hard to answer.”

The New Democrats chuckled and applauded. The Conservatives howled indignation, government members still quite insistent that the NDP leader should be the one accounting for himself.

So there was at least one answer this day. Perhaps two. Maybe even three. Or four. Depending on how one measures these things.

Mr. Mulcair’s first question had to do with the recently disclosed conversation between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Harper on February 13. “Mr. Speaker,” the NDP leader recalled, “yesterday the Prime Minister said, ‘Mr. Duffy approached me to seek some clarification.’ What kind of clarification did Mike Duffy seek?”

Mr. Harper stood to explained. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “our view from the outset is that all expenses, obviously, must be appropriate when they are claimed. If they are not appropriate, they should be reimbursed to the taxpayers. I have made this view known to, obviously, a range of our caucus and also my staff. Mr. Duffy was seeking clarification on remarks I had made to this effect in caucus and, of course, I was adamant that any inappropriate expenses had to be reimbursed by him.”

So apparently Mr. Duffy approached Mr. Harper after that caucus meeting and asked the Prime Minister to clarify whether, when the Prime Minister said inappropriate expenses should be paid back, he believed Mr. Duffy should pay back any inappropriately claimed expenses and Mr. Harper told Mr. Duffy that yes, he believed Mr. Duffy should pay back any inappropriately claimed expenses and that was that.

Mr. Mulcair later proceeded through the PMO staff list.

“Would the Prime Minister tell us if his lawyer, Ben Perrin, was involved in any way, shape or form in this transaction with Mike Duffy?”

Mr. Harper’s response was something of a curlicue.

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Perrin, who is now a private citizen, speaks for himself on these matters,” the Prime Minister offered. “I believe, in fact, he has answered these questions and, obviously, would be prepared to answer the questions from anybody else, just as I have done here.”

Mr. Perrin’s statement thus remains to be parsed.

“I would like to ask the Prime Minister, clearly, now, was Ray Novak involved in any way, shape or form in these discussions concerning Mike Duffy?” Mr. Mulcair wondered of the Prime Minister’s current chief of staff. “Yes or no?”

Mr. Harper appealed to clarity. “Mr. Speaker, once again, the facts here are very clear,” he ventured. “Mr. Wright decided to take an action on his own initiative, using his own funds. These actions are his sole responsibility. I have no information before me to suggest they are anyone else’s responsibility.”

Mr. Mulcair wondered about the involvement of Prime Minister’s director of communications (Andrew MacDougall) and press secretary (Carl Vallee). Mr. Harper again said that only one person was responsible.

The NDP leader wondered finally how the Prime Minister’s spokesmen could thus comment on this matter if they were not involved.

Mr. Harper now at least clarified the extent of his staff’s ignorance.

“Mr. Speaker, as I have said repeatedly, it was Mr. Wright who made the decision to take his personal funds and give those to Mr. Duffy so that Mr. Duffy could reimburse the taxpayers,” the Prime Minister reviewed. “Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office.”

So what might we now know? That Mr. Duffy spoke with the Prime Minister on February 13, apparently to clarify the Prime Minister’s views on inappropriately claimed expenses. That by February 20, at least according to CTV, Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright had some sort of arrangement. That Mr. Wright somehow provided something like $90,000 to Mr. Duffy. That Mr. Wright did not communicate as much to any member of the Prime Minister’s Office and Mr. Harper was not made aware until the morning of May 15. And that Mr. Harper then accepted Mr. Wright’s resignation on the morning of May 19.

And what else might we want to know? Perhaps the terms, if there were any, of the arrangement between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright. Or whether there is any correspondence that might explain their discussions. Or if Mr. Duffy is in financial difficulty and whether he took out a loan. And whether Mr. Wright was aware that Mr. Duffy was not (or would not be) cooperating with the Senate’s auditors. And what, in lieu of any personal knowledge of such things, has Mr. Harper done to ascertain such details over the last three weeks.

Of what this amounts to, that remains to be decided by some authority or another.

Mr. Mulcair deviated from his achingly specific questions only twice—with his sixth and seventh queries, immediately after Justin Trudeau had offered his three.

“Mr. Speaker, something does not add up,” Mr. Mulcair declared. “The Prime Minister just said that Nigel Wright’s motive in cutting the $90,000 cheque was to protect the taxpayers. Mike Duffy is a wealthy man. He owns two houses, and he is earning a six-figure salary. The Senate could have obliged him to reimburse. There is no way the taxpayer could have been on the hook for that money. How can he believe that that is a motive? It does not even make sense.”

Mr. Harper was unswayed.

“Mr. Speaker, the facts of the matter are this, that Mr. Wright spent his own money. He assured that that money went back to the Receiver General of Canada, to the taxpayers of Canada,” the Prime Minister reviewed. “He wanted the taxpayers reimbursed, and he is prepared to be accountable before the Ethics Commissioner and others for his decision in that matter which he admits was an error in judgment.”

Back came Mr. Mulcair, leaning forward and chopping both hands in the Prime Minister’s direction. “Mr. Speaker, it is clear that the Senate could have forced Mike Duffy to pay,” he ventured. “Is it not also clear that Nigel Wright’s real motive was to get this problem out of the Prime Minister’s Office as he had ordered during the meeting of his caucus where Nigel Wright was present?”

This was a guess. And Mr. Harper dismissed it.

“Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear. I never gave any such order, any suggestion nor had any idea that Mr. Wright was using his personal money to make sure the taxpayers were reimbursed,” the Prime Minister explained. “That is a decision he took on his own, that he choose not to inform me about. He admits that was an error in judgment, and he will be accountable to the Ethics Commissioner for that decision.”

After 22 questions last Tuesday, 17 questions last Wednesday and 20 questions yesterday, Mr. Harper took another 17 questions this afternoon. And we are perhaps only slightly more aware of what the hell happened than we were on the morning of May 15.

It is to wish that before he’d accepted his chief of staff’s resignation, Mr. Harper had made Mr. Wright stand in the foyer until every query that could be asked had been shouted at him.

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