OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper will get no reprieve from the Senate expenses scandal with the launch of a new session of Parliament today.
New Democrats have come up with a procedural ploy to ensure the scandal will be front and centre even on the first day, which would ordinarily focus exclusively on the throne speech.
The moment the House of Commons resumes after the speech, the NDP intends to raise a point of privilege, which would take precedence over all other business.
The party will ask Speaker Andrew Scheer to find that Harper misled the Commons last spring when he insisted no one in his office knew that his chief of staff had bailed out Sen. Mike Duffy — an assurance contradicted over the summer by the RCMP.
Nigel Wright gave Duffy $90,000 so that he could reimburse the Senate for wrongly claimed housing allowances and living expenses.
Wright resigned as Harper’s chief of staff in May, shortly after news of the transaction leaked out.
Harper assured the Commons repeatedly that Wright acted on his own and that neither he nor anyone else in his office knew anything about the deal with Duffy.
“As I have said repeatedly, it was Mr. Wright who made the decision to take his personal funds and give those to Mr. Duffy so that Mr. Duffy could reimburse the taxpayers,” Harper told the Commons on June 5.
“Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office.”
However, an affidavit filed in court in July by the RCMP, which is investigating the scandal, subsequently revealed that at least three other people in the Prime Minister’s Office knew about the deal.
Wright informed the Mounties that he’d told his assistant, David van Hemmen, as well as Harper’s legal adviser, Benjamin Perrin, and Chris Woodcock, the PMO’s director of issues management.
Sen. Irving Gerstein, who controls the Conservative party’s purse strings, was also in the loop, according to the RCMP document.
Perrin, who no longer works in the PMO, has said he “was not consulted on, and did not participate in” the Wright-Duffy transaction.
The RCMP is also investigating two other former Conservative senators and one former Liberal senator for making potentially fraudulent living and travel expense claims: Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb.
The NDP tactic will ensure that the Wright-Duffy affair is the only business that occupies the Commons immediately following the throne speech, which is to be read by the governor general in the Senate chamber.
“You don’t get away with just saying one thing that’s the opposite of the truth in the House of Commons and expect to have no consequences,” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said following a caucus meeting prior to the throne speech.
“There are legal, technical, procedural and honour consequences here in the House of Commons for Stephen Harper for having done that. And we’re calling him to account.”
Mulcair noted that Harper attended only five question periods in the final five weeks of the spring parliamentary sitting, took the summer off and gave himself an extra month by delaying the resumption of Parliament, which had been originally scheduled to return in mid-September.
“Well, he can run but he can’t hide.”
The official Opposition is also balking at the government’s attempt to pick up legislation where it left off in the last session of Parliament, which requires the consent of opposition parties.
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said the government wants opposition parties to give it a blank cheque to restore any bill it chooses, as well as to restore special Commons committee studies into MP expenses and missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Cullen called the all-or-nothing offer an abuse of power and said the NDP is insisting that each bill and committee study be dealt with individually.
Harper chose to prorogue Parliament, effectively killing all legislation on the order paper, in a bid to avoid scrutiny and change the channel on the Senate scandal but now wants to “reset the clock without any penalty at all,” Cullen said.
“Beyond not making any sense, it rewards bad behaviour,” he said.
“They’re not getting the session off to a good start.”