OTTAWA – The House of Commons took on the aura of an inquisition Tuesday as Stephen Harper was grilled for the first time in Parliament about the role his office played in the Senate spending scandal.
Eschewing the histrionics and partisan broadsides that normally dominate question period, opposition leaders posed short, sharp, relentless queries about when the prime minister learned his chief of staff had personally footed the $90,000 bill for Sen. Mike Duffy’s invalid expense claims.
The onslaught elicited no new information as Harper stuck resolutely to his story that Wright acted on his own, without informing the prime minister or anyone else in his office.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair showed off his skill as a lawyer, peppering Harper with 14 pointed questions:
“When did the prime minister first speak with Nigel Wright about Mike Duffy’s expenses?” he asked.
“How many times did he speak with Nigel Wright in the week preceding his resignation?”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau followed suit.
“Will the prime minister commit to releasing all records, emails, documents and correspondence relating to any arrangement between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy?” Trudeau asked.
“Will the prime minister commit to having everyone involved in this affair, including himself, testify about their involvement in a public forum, under oath?”
Harper committed to nothing and offered little new information.
He insisted he first learned on May 15 that Wright had cut a personal cheque to pay for Duffy’s invalid expense claims.
“Until the morning of May 15, when Mr. Wright informed me that he had written a personal cheque to Mr. Duffy so that he could repay his expenses, it had been my understanding that Mr. Duffy had paid from his own personal resources,” Harper told the Commons.
Trudeau pointed out that the first news report about Wright’s involvement surfaced on the evening of May 14 and included a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office assuring that no public funds had been used to repay Duffy’s claims.
“Is the prime minister not aware, so completely, about what is going on in his own office that he did not know the night before when the news broke?”
The grilling took place shortly before the start of a meeting of the secretive Senate committee studying Duffy’s improper expenses.
Conservatives on the internal economy committee were expected to put forward a motion to hold the meeting in public.
Liberals in the Senate — as well as Duffy himself — have been lobbying for the internal economy committee to open the meeting.
The Liberals also suggest that committee chairman David Tkachuk should step down.
Tkachuk revealed in an interview that he discussed the review of Duffy’s expenses with Wright, who resigned five days after his involvement in the affair came to light.