The PM and Senator Don Plett appeal to caution and discretion

’The more we throw mud, the more we lose ground’
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

Offended by the opposition leader’s supposition, the Prime Minister called for decency.

“When I look at the NDP I remember the old saying,” Mr. Harper said, “the more we throw mud, the more we lose ground.”

The Conservatives stood and cheered their agreement.

The mud, in this case, was directed at Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen. Ms. Stewart Olsen’s expenses were subjected to question by a reporter earlier this month and now Thomas Mulcair was standing in the House and accusing her of being involved in the same sort of scandal that was threatening the senatorial careers of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Harper responded, “nothing proves such a claim. The honourable member is now just starting to throw mud without any facts whatsoever. The senator herself has said that is not correct. I am not aware on what basis he is saying that, but when I look at the NDP I remember the old saying, the more we throw mud, the more we lose ground.”

The Prime Minister was likely on to something here—there is no finding against Ms. Stewart Olsen and she has said a review with the Senate found nothing improper—even if otherwise his opponents might find something ironic in his remarks. Probably we need to take a deep breath. And surely what we need right now is to find solid ground.

But if yesterday was the Prime Minister’s moment to grab hold of the one detail that is not in dispute here—that he told Mr. Duffy to repay the allowance the senator had rather debatably claimed—today was the opposition’s turn to point furiously at everything that could be said to be subject to any amount of doubt, to grab everything that was not already nailed down (and then hurl it across the room).

What about Ray Novak? What exactly happened at that February 13 meeting of the Conservative caucus? Did the Prime Minister threaten Mr. Duffy with expulsion from the Senate? Did Mr. Wright or Mr. Novak or Ms. Stewart Olsen threaten to have Mr. Duffy expelled from the Senate? What about Chris Woodcock? Why didn’t the Prime Minister fire the staff members who apparently didn’t tell him he was incorrect when he told the House that Mr. Wright had not told any member of Mr. Harper’s office what he had done? And how many is a few?

That last one was Mr. Mulcair’s attempt to question Mr. Harper’s assertion that Mr. Wright had only told a “very few” what he had done.

Though the questions might’ve generally been specific, the NDP leader almost entirely abandoned the restrained manner of previous cross-examinations. His shoulders bounced and his hands chopped and massaged the air in front of him. He smiled and, at one point, adopted a silly voice to mock the Prime Minister. The Conservatives groaned. If yesterday was Mr. Harper’s day to demonstrate, today was more Mr. Mulcair’s. In fairness, it was the NDP leader’s birthday.

When Mr. Mulcair scorned the Prime Minister for voting against an NDP proposal to ban senators from partisan activities, the Prime Minister responded that, “The solution is not to have senators or anybody else pretend they are non-partisan. It is to have them elected so they are accountable to the Canadian people.”

The NDP leader took advantage of the opening. “How is that going, the elected Senate?” he asked, eyebrow raised, seemingly in reference to the Quebec Court of Appeal’s ruling of just hours earlier. The New Democrats laughed.

Down the hall, the Senate was moving towards its third day of trying to decide what to do about Mr. Duffy, Mr. Brazeau and Ms. Wallin.

However objectionable its existence might be, there is at least still an air of decency to the upper chamber. The gold ceiling, the red leather chairs, the ornately carved sandstone, the grand paintings on the west and east walls. When a speech is concluded, a senator seeking to respond must first ask if the speaker will accept questions and apparently the original speaker always says yes. Permission to continue talking seems to be generously granted. At six o’clock or thereabouts everyone breaks for dinner. And the fact that none of it can be heard unless some television network decides to broadcast the audio lends a certain old timey quaintness. Like it’s World War II and we’re all crowding around the old wireless to hear the King’s speech. Only in this case it’s Mike Duffy explaining how he got nasty phone messages from another senator telling him to do what the Prime Minister wanted for the good of the party.

So it is that, unfortunately for the Senate, and for the Prime Minister, there is much muck about and much of this remains muddy.

Before the Prime Minister had warned everyone against the hurling of soil—but, granted, after Liberal house leader Dominic LeBlanc had accused the Prime Minister’s current chief of staff of participating in “what appears to be extortion and covering up the Conservative bribe” —he had castigated the Liberal side for blocking action against the Senate’s infamous trio.

“The allegations contained in that question are completely false and designed to do one thing,” Mr. Harper ventured, “and that is to deflect attention from the fact that it is Liberal senators and the Liberal Party that refuses any reform in the Senate and refuses any attempt to discipline any senators who have behaved inappropriately.”

After Question Period, a member of Mr. Harper’s caucus, Peter Goldring, would tell reporters that the motions were unconstitutional and that the Governor General should intervene. But it was most particularly inconvenient for narrative purposes that Don Plett, a former president of the Conservative party appointed to the Senate by Mr. Harper in 2009, stood in the red chamber a short while later and announced that he could not support the government leader’s motions without amendments.

“The problem here,” he said, “is that we are trying to oversimplify a complex issue with a quick fix at the expense of three individuals, before giving them the opportunity to defend themselves and before we have had the opportunity to examine all of the facts of the respective cases.”

Probably there is something to this sort of thinking.

In the mind of perhaps the last Conservative willing to be seen with Mr. Duffy and to be heard referring to him as a friend, the three senators were still entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence. The process here was flawed and the proposed penalty—suspension without pay—too severe in the circumstances. “To prematurely remove the medical benefits of a cancer survivor, a heart patient and a father of young children before allowing due process to run it’s course is, in my opinion, unconscionable,” he offered.

In closing, he recalled his father. “My father introduced me to the world of politics at the young age of 15,” he said. “He counselled and mentored me. He was a Conservative all his life. But first and foremost, he was a man of ethics and integrity. He taught me not to let politics get in the way of doing the right thing. He taught me to vote my conscience.”

He finished by begging his fellow “honourable senators,” to do the “right thing.”

It is a testament only to these strange days that this was perhaps only the fourth-most-remarkable speech in the Senate this week.