OTTAWA – The Harper government’s bid for summary execution of disgraced senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau has turned into an agonizingly slow soap opera that is exposing a nasty — and increasingly personal — family feud within the ruling Conservative caucus.
Debate over government motions to suspend, without pay, the three erstwhile Conservatives continued to rage in the Senate for the third straight day — with no end in sight.
Thursday’s debate saw Marjory LeBreton, former government leader in the Senate, fire back at Duffy for alleging she was part of a “monstrous” conspiracy to intimidate him into accepting a secret deal to pay back ineligible expenses or face being disqualified from sitting in the Senate.
She variously described Duffy’s claims as “utterly preposterous,” “blatant falsehood” “a whopper” and “stretching credulity.”
And, although LeBreton didn’t directly question Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s judgment in appointing Duffy to the upper chamber, she revealed that she was never a fan of the former broadcast journalist, who hosted a daily show on federal politics until his elevation to the Senate in 2009.
“I sometimes found myself … frustrated by his style of journalism, trading as he did, more often than not, on gossip and the latest hot rumour,” LeBreton told the upper chamber.
“And sometimes I was so disgusted that I felt like putting my foot through the television set.”
When anyone complained, Duffy would say, “It’s showbiz,” LeBreton said, implying that Duffy has taken the same approach to justifying his role in the Senate expenses scandal.
Duffy and Brazeau, along with former Liberal senator Mac Harb, are under investigation by the RCMP for allegedly fraudulently claiming Senate housing allowances and living expenses.
The Mounties are also investigating the fact that Duffy accepted $90,000 from Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to reimburse his ineligible expenses.
That $90,000 cheque was again a focal point down the hall during the daily question period in the House of Commons, where the prime minister’s combative bluster from the day before was gone, replaced by a bob-and-weave defence.
Where Harper insisted in June that nobody but Wright and Duffy knew of the reimbursement scheme, he changed his tune Thursday, saying Wright “informed very few people” — all of them known to be key Harper confidantes.
“Mr. Speaker, I refer the prime minister to Hansard of June 5,” retorted NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. “There was no ‘very few’ in there. It was ‘nobody.'”
A Senate committee has also asked the RCMP to investigate Wallin’s allegedly improper travel expenses.
All three maintain they did nothing wrong and have denounced the proposed suspensions as a violation of their fundamental right to due process and the presumption of innocence. None has yet been charged, much less convicted of any wrongdoing.
They also claim they’re being railroaded by a government desperate to put an end to the scandal, which has engulfed it for almost a year.
They got support for that contention Thursday from one of Harper’s most loyal foot soldiers: Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, a former president of the federal Conservative party.
“I understand the desire to have a fresh start in the Senate, a clean slate,” Plett told the upper chamber.
“The problem here is what we are trying to do over-simplifies a complex issue with a quick fix at the expense of three individuals before giving them the opportunity to defend themselves.”
Plett said he’s not sure he’ll support a Liberal amendment to refer the suspension motions to a Senate committee, which would give the three senators a public hearing. But he said he knows he won’t support the government’s motions and may propose amendments of his own.
“I’m actually considering voting against a motion from my leader for the first time in my political life,” he said, his voice quavering with emotion.
Down the hall from the Senate, Conservative MP Peter Goldring also chimed in, arguing that the motions set a dangerous precedent.
“(If) you come down on three senators and treat them without regard to the constitution, without regard to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, next it could any one of them, it could be anyone here, it could be anyone, anywhere. It could be you,” he said outside the Commons.
Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal, who’s been leading the charge against the motions, particularly in the case of Wallin, said he’s heard similar concerns from other Tory MPs. And he suggested opposition will grow the longer the debate goes on and the public begins to twig to what’s at stake.
That said, he conceded it would be “unduly optimistic” to say a majority of senators are prepared at this point to vote against the motions.
Government Senate leader Claude Carignan admitted the debate over the suspension motions could drag on into next week. But he said that’s proof that the three senators are getting a fair hearing.
Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau have had the opportunity to spend “a very long time” to give their side of the story, and other senators are being allowed to freely air their views, Carignan said outside the chamber.
So, “if somebody thinks we don’t have due process here, sorry, but we have very good due process.”
But as debate dragged on until just before midnight, Wallin made a surprise, last-minute intervention to challenge Carignan’s assertion. She argued that due process means a fair hearing before an open-minded jury, not a highly charged debate in the Senate in which she’s entitled to speak for 15 or 20 minutes and ask the occasional question of other senators.
The debate is scheduled to resume Friday morning, a day the Senate does not ordinarily sit.