The sketch: The perfect absurdity of the Duffy affair

How did we get here?

The Conservatives stood and cheered. The Prime Minister would stand and proclaim something resolute—and sometimes he might chop his hand or pump his fist or wag and jab his right index finger—and some number of the Conservatives around him would celebrate his remarks with a standing ovation. By my count, there were some 12 of these salutations.

On the day after Mike Duffy stood in the Senate and alleged that he had been intimidated into playing along with a “monstrous political scheme” propagated by members of Mr. Harper’s government, Mr. Harper would claim the high ground, or at least a ground slightly higher than the turf presently occupied by Mr. Duffy. And his caucus would be happy to see and hear him do it.

There would be no (or at least relatively little) attempting to turn questions around to taunt the opposition over some unrelated matter, no claiming to be focused on the “real concerns” of Canadians, no remaining in one’s seat and deferring to one’s parliamentary secretary. Mr. Harper would respond to 20 questions, taking even those that were posed by individuals who were not Thomas Mulcair nor Justin Trudeau. Mr. Duffy had his turn. And now Mr. Harper, with the crowd turning to see how he would respond, would have his. And so the Prime Minister’s latest, and perhaps greatest, test is whether or not he can best one of his own appointees in a battle over a housing allowance.

How did we get here?

Once upon a time, a Prime Minister appointed a man to the Senate. The man was a resident of Ontario, but he would represent Prince Edward Island. And if his cottage in Prince Edward Island was thus his primary residence, his home near Ottawa would be his secondary residence and he would claim the allowance that senators are due for maintaining such a residence near the capital.

In December of last year, a newspaper reporter questioned the claim of this allowance. It is the senator’s testimony that he appealed to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who assured the senator that his claims were in order. Still, the questions persisted and so Mr. Duffy appealed to the Prime Minister. Whatever the nuances of the two accounts of that meeting, both the senator and the Prime Minister agree that the Prime Minister told the senator on February 13 to repay whatever allowance he had received. Nine days after that conversation, the senator admitted that the might have been “mistaken” and announced that he would repay what he had claimed. But by then the senator had apparently agreed to let the Prime Minister’s chief of staff cover the cost of the repayment. It is the senator’s testimony that he agreed to do so because he had been told that, if he didn’t, the government would argue he was not qualified to sit in the Senate. And that if he did, the Prime Minister would publicly state he met the constitutional requirement of residency that is necessary to represent PEI and he would be shielded from an outside audit of his expenses.

Only then the deal between the senator and the chief of staff was revealed. And the chief of staff was compelled, after a few days and after the Prime Minister’s Office had publicly conveyed the Prime Minister’s confidence in him, to resign. And then the senator was told to leave the Conservative caucus. And now the government is moving to have him suspended without pay from the Senate. And now the senator is pleading his case. And so the Magna Carta and Winston Churchill are being cited as the Senate debates what it can and should do. And so a government noted for its hostility toward the media has been shaken by a journalist it happily invited into its midst. And so the man who travelled the country singing the party song and filling Conservative coffers has become both a pariah and an opponent. And so it is being speculated that the government is facing a dire threat and a grievous wound.

It all amounts to a perfect absurdity and a roaring spectacle. And if the Prime Minister had just appointed Mr. Duffy to represent the province of Ontario, this never would have occurred. Instead, his Throne Speech and his free trade deal (and his budget bill and his government’s agenda and whatever else might be said to matter) have been rendered secondary to the matter of the housing allowance.

And the Prime Minister’s best defence is ignorance; insisting that he was unaware of what his chief of staff did for his senator. An ignorance that persisted, in at least one respect, for a month and a half after his chief of staff resigned—when an RCMP application to the court was unsealed and it was revealed that Mr. Wright had told three other members of the Prime Minister’s Office about his decision to cut Mr. Duffy a cheque, a revelation that contradicted what the Prime Minister had said on June 5, when he told the House that Mr. Wright’s decisions “were not communicated to me or to members of my office.”

And now CTV is claiming that 13 “Conservative insiders” had knowledge of the cheque.

So what of the Prime Minister’s own actions?

Resuming his prosecution of the Prime Minister this afternoon, Thomas Mulcair first asked the Mr. Harper if he had threatened Mr. Duffy on February 13 with expulsion.

“At that particular time did I threaten him with expulsion?” Mr. Harper repeated. “No.”

Mr. Mulcair turned to Mr. Duffy’s testimony. “Mr. Speaker, on February 13, did the Prime Minister tell Mike Duffy, ‘It’s not about what you did; it’s about the perception of what you did …The rules are inexplicable to our base’? Did he say that, yes or no?”

The Prime Minister was categorical. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “no I absolutely did not say that.”

Mr. Mulcair asked about Mr. Wright’s presence during this discussion. “Was Nigel Wright present when the Prime Minister instructed Mike Duffy to repay his expenses, end of discussion?” the NDP leader demanded.

Four times this spring was Mr. Harper asked by Mr. Mulcair about who was present for this discussion. Two of those questions were about Mr. Wright specifically. None of those questions received an answer. And even now, even after Mr. Duffy had stood in the Senate and said that it was “just the three of us,” even still Mr. Harper could apparently not bring himself to state a simple “yes” or “no.”

“Mr. Speaker, once again, I have indicated that I made these statements in a caucus room,” Mr. Harper explained. “I made them to an entire caucus and senior staff, not just to Mr. Duffy and to Mr. Wright but to many others who were present and who heard them. Those instructions were absolutely clear, that I expect Mr. Duffy to repay his expenses and not Mr. Wright to repay them for him. That was also not correct, which is why Mr. Wright is no longer working for me and why Mr. Duffy is no longer in the Senate.”

(With a slight smile crossing his face, Mr. Harper would take his next opportunity to concede that his statement about Mr. Duffy’s official whereabouts was incorrect.)

So what of Mr. Duffy’s Senate seat?

“Mr. Speaker, in exchange for Mike Duffy going along with the PMO clan, did the Prime Minister ever undertake to ‘publicly confirm you are entitled to sit as a Senator from PEI’ ?” the NDP’s Megan Leslie asked when she picked up the case, quoting here from Mr. Duffy’s testimony.

“Mr. Speaker, when we name senators, we ensure that they fit the eligibility criteria for the Senate,” Mr. Harper responded. “Those criteria are laid out in the Constitution.”

So is that a no? Was Mr. Duffy still threatened at some point with expulsion on the grounds of his eligibility? If so, was Mr. Harper aware that Mr. Duffy had been so threatened?

Mr. Harper would refer repeatedly to what “Mr. Wright” had made clear and what responsibility “Mr. Wright” had accepted. Mr. Trudeau would challenge the Prime Minister to accept his own responsibility and Mr. Harper would clarify that “the reality is we are talking about the actions of Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy.” Mr. Trudeau boldly wondered if Mr. Harper would testify under oath about these matters and Mr. Harper casually ignored the question.

Mr. Harper would repeat that he was not aware of Mr. Wright’s cheque and that, had he been aware of Mr. Wright’s plans, he would have blocked him. Indeed, among the things Mr. Wright had made “very clear” was that Mr. Harper was not among those Mr. Wright had told. The Prime Minister would state his objections to what Mr. Duffy had done and his support for what the government leader in the Senate was now trying to do with Mr. Duffy.

Ms. Leslie would chide Mr. Harper for taking a seat yesterday and Mr. Harper would now make his most quotable pronouncement, turning suddenly folksy as he punctuated himself.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Harper began, “my answers on this matter from day one have been exactly the same as they are today.”

So does the Prime Minister still believe Mr. Wright acted with the “right motive” of reimbursing taxpayers?

“The facts are clear,” Mr. Harper continued. “Mr. Duffy was told. Mr. Duffy now says he is a victim because I told him he should repay his expenses. Darn right I told him.”

Darn tootin’.

If there is anything here to be linked to the greater narrative of Mr. Harper’s time in office, it might be his government’s general unwillingness or inability to explain itself. It might be something to do with the government’s need for control. It might be about transparency and accountability and all that. Or this might simply be a remarkable confluence of events and forces: power, ambition and expediency. It is the stuff of some cable TV show about a government trying to balance the demands on its attention and welfare and how badly and gloriously it can all go wrong and ridiculous. It is proof that reality is almost always more entertaining than fiction. So long as you can get past the fact that it’s really happening.

Awhile after the Prime Minister had finished with his 20 questions, Paul Calandra was sent up to recap what we had just heard.

“I think the Prime Minister has been very clear today,” the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary offered by way of response to a question from the Liberal corner, Mr. Calandra now apparently auditioning for a future career in deferential media. “He has answered all of the questions put forward to him. What was very clear is this, when Senator Duffy approached the Prime Minister about his inappropriate expenses, the Prime Minister told him to repay those expenses.”

So that much is clear. Indeed, not even Mr. Duffy quibbles with this. And that leaves only whatever else occurred to be clarified and whatever else remains to unfold.

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