The Senate: chamber of secrets -

The Senate: chamber of secrets

A bid to suspend three scandal-plagued senators sparks fresh allegations against the Prime Minister


Ean Kilpatrick/CP

Did they think Mike Duffy would go quietly? It seems they did. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative leadership in the Senate tabled a surprise motion to suspend Duffy without pay, along with two other embattled senators, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, they couldn’t have been intentionally inviting a torrent of allegations that threatened to make the Senate expense scandal, already very damaging, much worse for Harper. But that’s exactly what happened when the Senate convened this week to debate suspending the three Harper appointees. Early Tuesday evening, Duffy stood in his spot, along the back row in a far corner of the upper chamber, and proceeded to scorch the earth—or at least to singe the red carpet.

Glasses perched on the end of his nose, fists pumping and left index finger wagging and jabbing, Duffy delivered his remarks like the former TV reporter he is, as if he was going live with the juiciest scoop of his career. He unspooled an indignant tale of how, far from claiming improper Senate housing allowances and expense payments, he was entirely in the right. It was Harper and his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who pressured him into agreeing to pay back money he had collected—never mind how that would make Duffy look. In the most vivid scene Duffy sketched, he described a meeting last February—“just the three of us,” Harper, Wright and Duffy—in which they discussed how to put the expenses controversy to rest. “But the Prime Minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth,” he said.

What Harper was interested in, Duffy claimed, was the way the expenses story was hurting the Tories. “It’s not about what you did, it’s about the perception of what you did that’s been created in the media,” Duffy said Harper told him. So the Prime Minister and his top aide, according to Duffy, insisted he pay back the disputed funds. But the senator, who not all that long ago was a top draw at Tory fundraising events, said he just didn’t have the money. “Nigel Wright said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll write the cheque,’ ” Duffy said. The revelation that Wright had done just that led to his resignation from Harper’s staff last May. After that, Harper told the House of Commons that Wright cooked up the deal with Duffy alone.

But Duffy’s bravura turn of Senate oratory raised fresh questions about how many others in the Prime Minister’s Office knew about that arrangement, and how intimately Harper was involved. In a week when Harper desperately tried to draw attention to his trade deal with the European Union, and when his government strove to look busy putting into action the agenda set by the previous week’s Throne Speech, all eyes were on the Senate.


Senators arriving to work on Tuesday afternoon had first to get past a clutch of photographers huddled outside in the October chill around the brass doors that serve as the official entrance to Parliament’s Centre Block for members of the red chamber. Inside, and up the 26 steps that senators must climb to reach the Senate foyer, the press gallery had set up a second gauntlet, nine TV cameras and a noisy pack of reporters, lying in wait on the marble floor, flanked by sandstone pillars and surrounded by the grand portraits of kings and queens. Only after senators were escorted by security guards through the scrum, and once they set foot on the red broadloom that marks their exclusive domain, were they out of earshot of reporters’ questions.

Duffy wasn’t the only Harper patronage appointee whose paid position in Ottawa’s most controversial institution was at stake. “Brazeau!” a reporter called when Patrick Brazeau was spotted arriving. The media couldn’t coax a comment from him. Later, though, he also had his chance to speak in the chamber. Among other things, Brazeau asserted that his decision to claim that his primary residence was outside the National Capital Region, entitling him to a housing allowance, was approved in advance. “I asked the Senate administration if I could claim,” he said. “And I have it in black and white, yes, I could.” It was an audit that found Brazeau, in fact, lived mainly in the capital region that led to him becoming the subject of controversy. (He is also facing assault charges after an unrelated domestic incident.)

Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin, whose travel expense claims have also been deemed illegitimate, all quit the Conservative caucus to sit as Independents as the expense storm engulfed them. But Duffy portrayed himself as having come under intense pressure not only to pay back $90,000 in housing allowances—in the process seeming to admit he had wrongly claimed it in the first place—but also exit the Tory caucus. He described a key telephone conversation with Ray Novak, a long-time, trusted Harper aide who replaced Wright as chief of staff, and Sen. Marjory LeBreton, then Conservative leader in the Senate. “Senator LeBreton was emphatic,” Duffy said. “The deal was off if I didn’t resign from the Conservative caucus within 90 minutes. I’d be thrown out of the caucus immediately. Without a meeting. Without a vote.” Not only that, if Duffy didn’t play ball, LeBreton and Novak threatened, he asserted, to begin the procedure necessary to throw him out of the Senate entirely. (The debate over the motion to suspend the senators was set to continue Wednesday after Maclean’s went to press, with the vote to come at the end.)

Down the corridor from the Senate, in the House of Commons, Harper faced increasingly tough questions about his assertion last June that nobody else in his office knew what Wright was up to. Harper’s parliamentary secretary, MP Paul Calandra, seemed to leave some wiggle room by saying the Prime Minister was answering at the time “with all the information available to him.” “Does the Prime Minister regret any of his actions?” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked just before Duffy’s explosive Tuesday evening speech. “Not Nigel Wright’s actions, not Mike Duffy’s actions, but does the Prime Minister regret any of his own actions in the Senate scandal?” Harper only repeated what have become familiar lines about how his government expects the rules to be followed and those who break them are to be held accountable. He added that the House should attend to “the real priorities of Canadians,” which he said are “jobs, growth and making sure we have opportunity for future generations.”

No doubt if Canadians were asked, they would say those are their priorities. But Harper rose to power in 2006 largely on the strength of his unrelenting attacks on the Liberals over the so-called sponsorship affair, and so he knows as well as anyone how questions of ethical lapses have a way of pushing all other concerns to the sidelines of politics. Duffy’s speech provides plenty of fuel for the Senate expense fire to grow, rather than burn out, in the coming weeks. One possibility: Senate hearings that would call current and former officials from the Prime Minister’s Office to answer questions. Liberal Sen. James Cowan proposed such hearings minutes after Duffy finished his incendiary speech, suggesting it was only appropriate to give Harper staffers a chance to answer Duffy’s “very troubling accusations.” Cowan made it sound only fair, but one imagines the PMO officials might just as soon pass on the opportunity.

AVAILABLE NOW: A Maclean’s ebook on the Senate scandal with profiles of Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, with other stories by John Geddes, Paul Wells, Colby Cosh and more


The Senate: chamber of secrets

  1. There were media reports last night that Harper was in the room when Wright offered payment. Are those correct, or was it a mistake?

    • Who cares? Seriously. If they were going to pay the taxpayers back, I couldn’t care less whose money it was, as long as it isn’t my money I’m happy.

      • Oh right. Who cares if a guy walks into a bank and robs it, but gives the cops the money when they arrive. This wasn’t about paying back the taxpayers, it was about keeping Duffy quiet and then trying to cover up the fact that they were trying to keep Duffy quiet AFTER questions were raised in the media about Duffy’s legitimacy as a Senator.

        Harper’s claim that his base were too dim to understand is proven once again.

        • Ditto.

          Dimmer and dumber!

          • Doubt it, just the lesser of three evils these days.

        • Not the way the media reported it, maybe the media considers it’s audience too dumb to question it. The media had a fit that the Wright guy paid for Duffy’s mistakes. I didn’t say let Duffy off the hook, I said who cares who pays it back, how does Wright get incriminated for paying back the taxpayers in all this? Frankly I am glad he did (or tried to, or whatever). Is he Duffy’s boss? Did he order Duffy to overspend? I doubt it. So I couldn’t care less if he helped Duffy pay it back. Better than the Lieberals, who have been running overbudget senators for decades, the just don’t have the media breathing down their necks. Maybe Justin needs to go cut a few cheques too. And that would be fine with me. You want a senate, get used to getting ripped off is my view. The whole concept is stupid in a democracy ( why should unelected government buddies get to veto laws passed by elected members? They don’t answer to a voting public, yet they have all this power at our taxpaying expense). Also, as you can see, senators answer to no one, or haven’t in a loooong time (better check those liberal senators too, I bet they have a few skeletons in their closets) and don’t feel the need to be honest. And your worried about the politicians trying to make a boondoggle right?

          • It is against the law to bribe a sitting senator. Wright admitted he paid Duffy, Duffy says there were conditions attached. That is the issue that has Canadians with brains upset, not the weak attempt by Harper’s 12 year olds to pass this off as some sort of attempt to ensure taxpayers weren’t out of pocket.

            So what would Wright have been trying to cover up? Duffy alleges it was the PC attempt to run their election and other partisan expenses through the Senate (paid for by the taxpayers). Isn’t that ironic, yet typical of these goons? They didn’t get thrown in jail for the In and Out SCAM, so the same guys thought they would do it again, but bigger.

          • That is the first I have heard it called a bribe. Up until this week, Wright and Harper’s office were all trying to cover up that they were the ones to pay Duffy’s overdrawn expense account back. That seemed silly on so many levels (why hide the pay back?, why was it wrong for Wright to help Duffy pay it back?, etc.). There was no mention of conditions before this week. All last spring or before? (can’t recall) it was a big hoopla about Wright paying tax payers back Duffy’s overspending. There was no mention of bribes or running expenses through the senate (exactly how unsupervised is the senate anyways?), but the press went nuts. Now there is this or that allegation finally surfacing, I (and most people) just don’t care. It would be wiser for the press to wait until they have something juicy on Wright/Harper before they go nuts. Simply freaking out because Wright wrote Duffy a check to pay back taxpayers hardly seems Front-page newsworthy. Was Duffy wrong?, yes, should the press have gone nuts? Well, it is decades too little, too late so it looks like they are just dying to make the PM look bad (I mean, if they wait, won’t they get their wish anyways). Most people hear the words “senate scandal” now and already have their hand on the dial.

            Anyways, explain why the press was going nuts back in the Spring when all this came to light. Back then it was just Wright bailing Duffy out of Duffy’s own silly mess.

            Also, if Harper et. al were going to be running their campaign expenses through the senate, wouldn’t other senators also have to be in on it? Like Wallin? Did she say the same thing Duffy did, or is she accusing other senators of other things?

            Anyways, abolish the senate and all this will go away. Harper won’t have a place to reward donors, Harper won’t have a place to hide campaign expenses, Canadians won’t be robbed blind.

            And no, I am conservative, but not a Harper fan, this government is just the lesser of three evils as far as I’m concerned, not some wonderful party. But I want to see the same amount of press on Liberal Senators. I think they are worse and have more skeletons in their closets than the PC party does.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • A little ‘Con’ Racism?

        Maybe you should start a new life with an apology!

  2. So, what is the big deal? This gong show is over nothing. Why does anyone care if Duffy or Wright was going to pay the taxpayers back? That never made sense to me. News: Senators are overspending. Not News: Wright will help Duffy pay it back. Who cares how it is paid back?, just that it gets paid back. This whole thing blew up because the media is desperate. Aren’t there a pack of Liberal senators who also have dubious expense accounts? I personally would like to see the senate abolished, as any former usefulness is now outdated. But, if we have to have one due to some constitutional nonsense, then, get used to being ripped off, it is just a place to put friends of the political party currently in power, and frankly, that system breeds senators who are worse than politicians, they didn’t even have to campaign to begin ripping people off.

    • Indeed, who cares about respect for the law nowadays?

      • CPC posters sure don’t.

  3. Does that mean those seats would be vacant?

    • And a bigger question: Does anyone legitimately living and resident in PEI and Saskatchewan want to fill them? I’m sure there’s a cadre of fellow Ottawa residents on Harper’s list, but maybe he should consider those province’s actual denizens.

      • Time to start rewarding his media trolls. Anyone in PEI or Saskatchewan? Not you Francien, too bad for you, you’re in Alberta where you have to be elected.

  4. The media needs to research all the written approvals from Con Senate leaders et al, for all residency approvals and other expense approvals. Not just these 3…. Do the approvals still exist and is there a standard conformity as to criteria?

    Does the Senate have a set of rules in place that gives undue latitude to the Senate leadership? What is the actual wording of the rules on claiming per diem and housing allowance.

    Does Marjorie LeBreton now say the approvals were erroneous? She approved them!

    Where are the minutes of Internal Economy Committee meetings? Are the committee members required to keep a record of ad hoc conversations related to on-going committee matters?

    Will the current Con Senate even permit access to any of this material?