The Prime Minister arrived to the stage with a slight smile, an acknowledgement perhaps of his caucus’ willingness to stand and applaud his presence at this particular moment. He quickly turned serious.
“Good morning, everyone. Colleagues, obviously the reason I’m speaking to you this morning is I want to talk about some events that have transpired recently. And I don’t think any of you are going to be very surprised to hear that I’m not happy,” he said. “I’m very upset…”
So upset that he would commit here and now to release any and all relevant documents and correspondence in the possession of his office? So upset that he would submit to a news conference today to address the allegations concerning his former top aide? So upset that he would detail precisely what he knows about the arrangement between Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy? So upset that he would offer any kind of explanation here now with all these cameras summoned to transmit his remarks to the nation?
No, no, not that upset. Just upset enough to feel it necessary to tell everyone that he was indeed upset. A revelation that even he conceded was not much of a surprise.
“… about some conduct we have witnessed, the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office.”
In fact, we have not witnessed anything except the spectacle of a government attempting to slowly explain how one of the Prime Minister’s appointees in the Senate had come to pay back some unfortunately claimed expenses and how the Prime Minister’s chief of staff had come to be involved in the return of those funds. The actual events in question occurred entirely in secret.
Now though we would witness self-congratulation paraded for all to see.
“We’ve worked hard collectively, as a party, as a caucus and as a government to dramatically strengthen accountability rules in Ottawa and to apply those standards to ourselves,” Mr. Harper explained. “I need not remind you that in 2006 this government was first elected to clean up the Liberal sponsorship scandal, to ensure the rules are followed and to ensure there are consequences when there are not. Since that time we have taken unprecedented measures to achieve that end. Our federal Accountability Act, the toughest accountability legislation in the history of this country, forever changed the way business is done in Ottawa.”
In so far as perhaps no one other chief of staff has previously been accused of cutting a $90,000 cheque to a sitting senator, it can be said that this much is true. If Mr. Harper promised to change Ottawa, he did not ever specifically say that this precise situation would never occur.
“We have strengthened the powers of the auditor general, toughened the office of the ethics commissioner, reformed political party financing, dramatically tightened lobbying rules and beefed up auditing and accountability within government departments.”
All of which is all well and good, but seemingly irrelevant to the matter at hand: or at least insufficient to prevent it from happening.
“Canada now has one of the most accountable, transparent systems of governance in the entire world and this is something Canadians are rightly proud of.”
So maybe there remain major shortcomings. But always look on the bright side: it could be worse. We could live, for instance, in any of the countries in which the lack of a full explanation for this sort of thing would be considered perfectly unremarkable.
“It is also something, colleagues, we can never taken for granted.”
Indeed. For instance, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff could hypothetically be accused some day of cutting a cheque for a sitting senator and interfering in a Senate investigation.
“Because as I said, in fact as I said in the room across the hall, in the fall of 2005, when we first pledged to bring in the federal Accountability Act, I said this, ‘No government will be perfect because none of us are perfect. We cannot dream a system so perfect that no one will have to be good.’ ”
Consider any sense of perfection duly shattered.
“Therefore, just as we continue to toughen rules, we must also uphold a culture of accountability. And I know that the people in this room have.”
Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright, of course, were not present. But the Prime Minister obviously was. And it is the actions of his office of which he seems to have been quite unaware and which he seems rather reluctant now to address.
“We have reduced our budgets and travel as a government. We are the caucus that finally bit the bullet and reformed the MP pension plan so that we will pay our fair share.”
This received a standing ovation, the caucus apparently eager to cheer for something entirely unrelated to Mr. Duffy’s housing allowance.
“And I know that like me and my family, you are scrupulous about paying expenses of a personal nature yourselves.”
All of you apparently unaware of Mr. Wright’s willingness and generosity.
“But that said, let me repeat something else I said in that same speech in 2005 and let me be very blunt about it … Anyone, anyone, who wants to use public office for their own benefit should make other plans or, better yet, leave… this… room.”
Here he wagged his left index finger and his caucus again stood to applaud.
“Now colleagues, let me also address the issue of the Senate,” he continued when everyone had returned to their seats. “As Canadians know, I did not get into politics to defend the Senate.”
This drew chuckles.
“And it was this party that put Senate reform on the national agenda. It was this government that has placed before Parliament a bill, opposed by both the Liberals and the NDP, to allow for Senate elections and to put term limits on senators. And, in this room, our colleagues from the Senate have agreed to sit in the other place in order to support our efforts to achieve fundamental, irreversible reform. Colleagues, we have heard from Canadians loud and clear. They want us to continue our efforts. They are asking us to accelerate those efforts. The Senate status quo is not acceptable. Canadians want the Senate to change.”
Pity then that the Conservatives, despite possessing a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate and despite having demonstrated a great willingness to use time allocation to ensure the passage of government legislation, have done nothing with that bill for 14 months.
“Now, as you know, our Senate reforms have been tied up in Parliament for years,” Mr. Harper explained, seemingly without any sense of irony. “Earlier this year, we asked the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on whether the reforms we have proposed can be accomplished by Parliament acting alone. We’ve also asked the court to rule on options for abolishing the Senate completely.”
Apologies to Canadians who were eager for quick change to the Senate. It’s going to be awhile yet.
“And, as we prepare to receive and act on the judgment of the Supreme Court, we will also take further steps in the area of Senate expenditure and accountability. Senator LeBreton and I have discussed this and she has my full support to accelerate changes to the Senate’s rules on expenses and close any loopholes in those existing rules and I expect Conservative senators, regardless of what opposition you may face, to get that done in the Senate.”
A new rule advising against the cutting of cheques by chiefs of staff is apparently necessary.
“Colleagues, we have an active and important agenda on the issues that matter to hardworking Canadian families and there is much work to be done. When distractions arise, as they inevitably will, we will deal with them firmly.”
A distraction. Is that what this is?
“But we cannot lose sight of our top priority. The world we are in remains a deeply uncertain place.”
The sea of troubles, forever lapping at our shores. Do not be distracted by the profound questions about the conduct of Mr. Harper’s departed aide, lest ye be swamped by the perilous waves.
“Canadians are looking to us to protect them — their jobs, their families, their communities.”
Their debts to the Receiver General of Canada.
“That is what we must be focussed on and what we will continue to do: continue to implement our Economic Action Plan, continue to work on expanding trade, continue our focus on jobs, growth and long-term prosperity, and continue to ensure that through all the ups and downs of the world economy there remains no better place to be than this country, Canada. So let’s get back to work.”
That work not yet entailing something like a public explanation from the Prime Minister for all that apparently necessitated this speech.
There were shouted questions then from the reporters at the back of the room. Mr. Harper ignored the queries, his caucus chanted his surname. There were efforts then to encourage the exit of the invited reporters—”Thanks folks, thanks everyone,” offered the Prime Minister’s flacks—but the crowd was slow to move. More questions were shouted. The Prime Minister sat at the table at the front of the room and smiled slightly and uncomfortably. One of his senators and two of his cabinet ministers came up to talk to him.
The Prime Minister himself would say no more, at least not publicly. He would leave it to the members of his caucus to later face the hordes who waited outside this room with cameras and spotlights and microphones.