Andrew MacDougall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications, spoke with reporters today in the National Press Theatre, just off Parliament Hill, about the unusual decision of Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to cut Sen. Mike Duffy a cheque for about $90,000.
As most Canadians know by now, Duffy resigned yesterday from the Conservative caucus, which puts some distance between the controversy-plagued senator and the government. But Wright’s decision to dip into his personal wealth to give Duffy the money he needed to repay improperly claimed Senate expenses has brought the issue to the very heart of Harper’s own political operation.
MacDougall’s responses today offer three key indications about how the Tories hope to contain the damage from this controversy. Here are the main points that emerged from his exchange with reporters:
1. On Wright’s motivation, MacDougall’s message is that Harper’s top aide was concerned, not about the potential for Duffy’s troubles to damage the Conservatives, but about the Canadian taxpayer.
MacDougall contrasted the fact that Wright’s gift allowed Duffy to pay back dubious expenses against the way two other embattled, newly independent senators, Mac Harb (formerly Liberal) and Patrick Brazeau (formerly Tory) are resisting repaying expense money a Senate audit found they owe.
“If you’re looking at the scorecard, there’s one for three senators that returned money to the taxpayers of Canada that was improperly claimed,” MacDougall said, adding later that “the overarching imperative was to get that money returned, as it now has been returned.”
2. On the propriety of Wright’s action, MacDougall stressed repeatedly that the matter is now being looked into by federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson. Exactly what part of the Conflict of Interest Act Wright might possibly have violated is far from clear.
There is a section in the law that forbids a public office holder like Wright from using “information that is obtained in his or her position as a public office holder and that is not available to the public to further or seek to further the public office holder’s private interests or those of the public office holder’s relatives or friends.”
But MacDougall said Wright was motivated by concern about taxpayers, not his private interests or those of his friends. “Obviously, there’s some outstanding questions and our office is in contact with the office of the ethics commissioner for one angle,” MacDougall said. He declined, though, to give any details about that angle, or anything about the nature of the Prime Minister’s Office’s engagement with the ethics watchdog.
3. On next steps, MacDougall appeared to suggest the focus should not remain fixed on Wright’s unconventional act of generosity, but shift to the broader question of Senate reform.
Harper’s policy has been that provincial elections should select the senators, although prime ministers would still formally appoint them; these new, democratically chosen senators should serve for fixed, nine-year terms. Along with those big changes, recent expenses scandals have prompted the drafting of proposed reforms to the way Senate expenses are handled.
“There are a number of things that the government would hope to see changed in the Senate,” MacDougall said. “Obviously, we have longstanding attempts to legislate changes to the Senate. But we also do, through this expense matter, have a solid series of proposals that the Senate put forward on how to improve reporting and tighten reporting on these expenses, and nothing has been moved forward there yet.”
So MacDougall offers three elements here. They fit together. Wright’s action might have been unusual, but it was well motivated. Questions about what he did must be left for the ethics commissioner to answer. And, anyway, the larger point has to be to reform the Senate, not fixate on this odd episode.
In other words, Wright might have acted surprisingly, but not for nefarious reasons. Questions from the opposition parties and media can’t be answered while the ethics commissioner does her job. As for cleaning house, it’s the upper chamber, not Tory inner circles, that demand attention. If this works, it will be a bravura exhibition of damage control.