The Commons: John Baird tries to explain what he understands to be true

The opposition is not appeased by the Prime Minister's acknowledgement of unhappiness

Thomas Mulcair stood to a hearty cheer from his caucus and, when the applause had quieted, he attempted a joke.

“Mr. Speaker, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, to Peru apparently,” he quipped.

There were grumbles and complaints from the government side—it being unparliamentary to refer to the presence, or at least the lack thereof, of anyone in the House of Commons. Mr. Mulcair hadn’t quite done that here, but the Speaker was compelled to intervene here anyway and call for order.

The floor was returned to Mr. Mulcair and the NDP leader now proceeded to recap the story so far, a mix of the acknowledged, the alleged and the reported.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff gave Mike Duffy a $90,000 cheque,” he said. “In exchange, Duffy paid off illegal expenses, stopped co-operating with auditors and the PMO said in writing that they would go easy on him. In his own words Senator Duffy ‘stayed silent on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office.’ A secret cash payment from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff negotiated by the Prime Minister’s own lawyer.”

The Prime Minister’s Office does admit that Mr. Wright wrote a cheque in the amount of $90,000 for Mike Duffy. The rest is the stuff of nightly dispatches from CTV’s Robert Fife. The Prime Minister would like to assure you that he is “very upset.” (About what? All of it? Some of it?) And John Baird would now stand to assure everyone that the Prime Minister was entirely unaware that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff had written that cheque.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has been very clear that he was not aware of the payment until last week after it had been reported publicly in the media,” Mr. Baird explained. “The Prime Minister spoke very loudly and very clearly this morning.”

The Prime Minister did speak this morning. His relative clarity and his practical volume are perhaps subject to debate.

“Furthermore, this matter has been referred to two independent bodies for review,” Mr. Baird continued. “We look forward to the results of these reviews.”

Beyond these assurances, Mr. Baird had arrived at Question Period this afternoon with at least enough information to answer two questions.

Was Ray Novak, the current chief of staff, aware of the previous chief of staff’s payment to Mr. Duffy? He was not, Mr. Baird told the House.

Would the government now table the document that apparently put in writing the agreement between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright? “Our understanding is there is no document,” Mr. Baird explained.

So what about the reported involvement of the Prime Minister’s legal advisor?

“Mr. Speaker, Mike Duffy agreed to ‘stay silent on the orders of the PMO.’ In exchange the Prime Minister’s Office agreed to cover the cost of the senator’s fraudulent expenses. Why were taxpayer-funded lawyers used to negotiate this secret backroom deal between the Prime Minister’s chief of staff and Senator Duffy?” Mr. Mulcair asked. “Was taxpayers’ money used to bankroll “senategate”, yes or no?”

Mr. Baird did not have a clear answer to this, except to assure everyone of his clarity. “Mr. Speaker, it will come as no surprise to the Leader of the Opposition that I reject much of the premise of his question,” the Foreign Affairs Minister declared. “I have been very clear and the government has been very clear that the Prime Minister was not aware of this payment until media reports surfaced last week. Let me be very clear on that point.”

A response from the lawyer in question would come a couple hours later.

Here the questions kept coming.

“The Prime Minister called in the cops on Helena Guergis and Bruce Carson,” the NDP’s Charlie Angus recalled. “Given the seriousness of these allegations, will he call in the cops against Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy?”

“Mr. Speaker, let me once again be very clear,” Mr. Baird pleaded. “This issue has already been referred to two independent authorities that will look into this matter appropriately and be able to report back to Parliament and to Canadians. This government looks forward to the findings of those two independent reports.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Baird could not then explain himself some moments later when the NDP’s Nathan Cullen stood and wondered aloud to which two independent authorities the minister was referring. The Prime Minister’s Office explains that Mr. Baird was referring to the ethics commissioner and the possibility of a renewed investigation by the Senate’s internal economy committee—the same committee that is presently accused of whitewashing the original investigation of Mr. Duffy as part of the deal between the senator and Mr. Wright.

The NDP’s Craig Scott stood and wondered if the Justice Minister was of the belief that Mr. Wright might have breached Section 16 of the Parliament of Canada Act or Section 119 of the Criminal Code. Rob Nicholson stayed seated as Mr. Baird rejected Mr. Scott’s premises.

Ralph Goodale stood and demanded, almost as an afterthought, all emails related to this matter.

“Mr. Speaker, ordinary Canadians do not have access to rich Conservative friends to pay their debts,” he suggested. “A week ago the government was calling Mike Duffy an ‘honourable man,’ showing ‘leadership’ and doing ‘the right thing.’ The Prime Minister knows that a secret payment of $90,000 was made by his most senior official to shut down a forensic audit of Duffy’s illegal expenses, to pervert the Senate’s official report on those expenses, and to block any further investigation. With whom and when did this corruption begin and will the government table all emails pertaining to this insidious scheme?”

Mr. Baird stood to reject the preamble and ignore the question.

“Let me say this,” Mr. Baird offered. “A committee in the other place that was looking into this brought in some outside auditors. The conclusion of that report was that these claims never should have been made. No one in the government, certainly no one in this place, rejects that conclusion. I understand in the report it was mentioned that these expenses had been reimbursed, as is what had happened.”

Oh for the good ole days of that Thursday nearly two weeks ago when that was all that was known to have happened. It was a simpler time. An easier time. A time long after Mr. Wright wrote that cheque, but a few days before we—and apparently the Prime Minister—were to find out that he’d written it. Alas, there’s no going back for us—or the Prime Minister—now.