The sketch: Stephen Harper tries to back away quietly

As the sea of troubles laps at his shores

The Prime Minister might’ve stood yesterday and ventured before the House that the Senate was an independent institution, responsible for its own affairs and beyond the reach of his authority. But then probably everyone would have laughed at him.

“What does the government have to hide?” Thomas Mulcair had asked, simultaneously pleading and charging with his hands, in the first of what would be five questions in a single intervention. “Why does it not allow the Senate to hear Michael Runia? We know that he is the Conservative Party’s own auditor. Why, if the Conservatives have nothing to hide, do they have an interest in blocking Runia’s testimony? Why do they keep interfering in the Senate? Why block this testimony?”

If Mr. Harper wasn’t going to attempt to claim that the Senate existed within tamper-proof packaging, he might have cast some aspersion upon Mr. Mulcair. He might’ve offered a few perfunctory sentences that were vaguely applicable and then offered some variation on I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I? Or he might’ve pronounced himself profoundly saddened with Mr. Mulcair’s tone—invoking some piety about how counter-productive it is to throw mud in another’s direction.

Instead, the Prime Minister stood and offered an entirely benign sentence.

“Mr. Speaker, the auditors have in fact already testified before the Senate and they have testified to the integrity of their audit.”

Mr. Mulcair seemed unpersuaded.

“Mr. Speaker, all of them, except for one. That one, his friend, Irving Gerstein, phoned to try to influence the audit of Mike Duffy. He knows that is the one we are talking about,” the NDP leader explained, lest anyone was of the impression that the Prime Minister was blissfully unaware of the matter to which Mr. Mulcair referred.

“We have got an 81-page report from the RCMP that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that his office has been controlling everything in the Senate,” Mr. Mulcair continued. “Why are the Conservatives blocking Runia if they have got nothing to hide?”

Once more to the Prime Minister and his perfectly benign reportage.

“Mr. Speaker, the auditors who performed the audit have already testified before the Senate and they testified to the integrity of their audit.”

As the Duffy-Wright affair continues to spread far and wide and in endlessly new directions like a massive glass of spilled milk—touching now on everything from the government’s policies on email retention to questions about the Senate’s ability or willingness to investigate what one of its own members might’ve done in relation to an independent audit of another of its members—the government seems newly interested in being as understated as possible. Save for a vague reference to the matter of Liberal Senator Colin Kenny and a bit of worrying about the opposition leader’s unwillingness to accept the government’s explanation, Mr. Harper and his parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, made it through a combined 17 responses yesterday to questions about said scandal without much in the way of either sturm or drang.

Perhaps someone decided that the casting of aspersions in other directions was not particularly flattering the government side. Perhaps, as a colleague suggested to me, the government side now just wants to make it quietly into the Christmas break.

Not that the condemnation and declaration of previous days was replaced with much in the way explanation and exposition this day.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair asked, “did the Prime Minister know about the original plan to pay off Mike Duffy’s expenses using money from the Conservative Party, yes or no?”

We have been over this. Possibly the NDP leader was interested in giving the Prime Minister one more chance to say, “no.” But apparently the Prime Minister was not much interested in being so succinct.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “as I have said repeatedly, it was always conveyed to me that Mr. Duffy would repay his own expenses. Not only is that what I was told; Mr. Duffy himself said publicly that he had done that. The fact of the matter, of course, is that was not true. Mr. Duffy had received money from somebody else who had effectively done that for him, and that was not properly disclosed and was misrepresented. For that reason, we have taken the appropriate actions.”

Mr. Mulcair was rather unimpressed.

Two weeks ago, in conversation with the CBC’s Evan Solomon, the Prime Minister’s director of communications said that, “the Prime Minister had no knowledge of the conversation that would see the Conservative Fund repay Mr. Duffy’s expenses.”

Asked that same weekend by CTV’s Robert Fife whether the Prime Minister was aware that “his office had asked the Conservative party to pay Duffy’s invalid expenses and his legal fees,” Jason Macdonald responded, “Absolutely not.”

The NDP leader, a rather entitled sort, seemed to think that Mr. Harper might say something similar in response to his question.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister’s spokesman has given a clear answer to that question. It is just different,” Mr. Mulcair charged. “Why is the Prime Minister afraid to give a straight answer? Why is his spokesman allowed to give straight answers? Is it because his spokesman is allowed to lie and the Prime Minister is not?”

The Conservatives howled. There were chants of “Out! Out!”—apparently to suggest that Mr. Mulcair might be ejected for this insinuation about the Prime Minister’s spokesman. The Speaker stood to interject.

“I do not know if those types of accusations are helpful to the debate,” Andrew Scheer wondered aloud.

The Prime Minister sat turned towards the Speaker with his hands clasped, listening Mr. Mulcair shrugged and threw up his hands, apparently unclear as to how precisely he might’ve transgressed.

“Order, please,” the Speaker pleaded. “I would ask members to avoid trying to insinuate or to make implications either about sitting parliamentarians or about using the protection of this place with regard to a private individual who does not have the ability to defend himself or herself. But I will allow the honourable leader of the opposition to pose a supplemental.”

The NDP leader stood and returned to his original question. “Mr. Speaker, did the Prime Minister know about the original plan to have the Conservative Party pay Mike Duffy’s expenses, yes or no?”

Mr. Harper stood and came closer to what his spokesman had said. “Mr. Speaker, of course I have answered that question on many occasions,” he ventured. “It was always conveyed to me that it was Mr. Duffy who was going to pay Mr. Duffy’s expenses, not the Conservative Party, not Nigel Wright, not anybody else.”

Now Mr. Harper expressed his disappointment in Mr. Mulcair. “We have been crystal clear on that,” the Prime Minister pronounced, now gesturing in the NDP leader’s direction. “The leader of the opposition knows what the answer is to that question. He knows what the truth is. It is he who is determined to ignore the truth.”

Maybe so. But all the same, it is somewhat exhausting that there should have to be so much parsing.

At one point in the hour, in response to a question about what the Privy Council Office had done and said in terms of whose emails were being sought, Mr. Harper seemed to attempt to clarify the nature of the problem here.

“What is unacceptable here is the event that took place, the payment that was not properly disclosed,” he said. “It was misrepresented, and for that reason we have taken action and the two individuals in question are under investigation.”

There is something to this. As the Prime Minister said a week ago, “The real issue is that Senator Duffy made inappropriate expense claims and claimed publicly that he had repaid them, when he knew that was not the case. It was in fact Mr. Wright who repaid them, and Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy did not properly disclose this transaction.”

These are, perhaps, the most unacceptable aspects of this affair. But what of everything else? How acceptable was the behaviour of everyone else involved? How acceptable was the editing of the Senate report on Mr. Duffy? How acceptable were Mr. Gerstein’s interactions with Deloitte? How acceptable is the Senate’s reluctance to further investigate Mr. Gerstein’s interactions with Deloitte? How acceptable were the suspensions of Mr. Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau? How acceptable is the PMO’s policy on email deletion? How acceptable is it that three weeks after Mr. Wright’s payment to Mr. Duffy was revealed that Mr. Harper was apparently unaware of who in his office had been aware of that payment? How acceptable has been the Prime Minister’s response to all of this?

The trouble for Mr. Harper remains mainly that Mr. Wright cut Mr. Duffy a cheque for $90,000 and that that might eventually result in formal charges. But that trouble continues to lead to new troubles. And so now there is a sea of troubles lapping at Mr. Harper’s shores.

So perhaps it is no use shaking your fist at the storm clouds, that will only make you look crazy. Rather stuff the bags with sand and wait for the flood to recede. Or at least hope that it eventually does.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.