The Commons: Stephen Harper's Mike Duffy problem

If only Jim Flaherty hadn't tabled the 2008 economic update

Today’s theme would be personal responsibility.

For the third time since his chief of staff was found to have given $90,000 to one of his senators, Stephen Harper was present in the House of Commons this day for this place’s daily exercise in accountability. For the second time, Mr. Harper was more interested in a matter entirely unrelated to himself.

Thomas Mulcair began with a discrepancy. “Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has said that he did not find out about the payment from Nigel Wright to Mike Duffy until May 15. However, yesterday his cabinet colleague, Marjory LeBreton said: ‘On the 14th of May, the Prime Minister dealt with it.’ Who is telling the truth?”

Mr. Harper moved first here to reassure the leader of the opposition. “Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear. I learned of this matter on May 15, and of course immediately made this information public.”

So Ms. LeBreton was apparently mistaken.

But this was not the “real” issue at hand, at least so far as Mr. Harper was concerned.

“The real question is why the leader of the opposition, on November 16, 2010, said that he knew nothing about the activities of the mayor of Laval which are now before the Charbonneau Commission, when in fact he had known for 14 years.”

This is certainly one parsing of Mr. Mulcair’s comments of two and a half years ago.

Mr. Mulcair asked next about the first occasion on which Mr. Harper discussed Mr. Duffy’s expenses with Mr. Duffy. Mr. Harper said it was February 13 and that he had been “very clear” and that the “real question” was to do with what Mr. Mulcair said two and a half years ago about what he saw 19 years ago.

Mr. Mulcair pressed on with specific questions about who was present to hear what the Prime Minister said less than four months ago and so on. Indeed, the NDP leader’s queries for the Prime Minister remain quite specific, perhaps almost too much so.

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, appealed to his own clarity. “I have been very clear, very public, very consistent,” he insisted. Indeed, Mr. Harper would use the phrase “very clear” a total of 14 times this afternoon, 13 times in reference to himself and his government, once in reference to Nigel Wright.

“My statements on this have been very clear and very consistent,” Mr. Harper declared in response to Mr. Mulcair’s fifth query, “totally different from the honourable member who keeps refusing to answer questions as to why his knowledge of bribery attempts were not clearly and correctly conveyed to the public and the police over a period of 17 years.”

It is perhaps necessary to note here that Mr. Mulcair did, two weeks ago, stand in the foyer and face a horde of reporters who asked him various questions about what he saw, knew and did as it pertains to an envelope the mayor of Laval presented to him in 1994. Whether he answered those questions to everyone’s particular satisfaction is likely a matter of subjective interpretation, but he did at least allow reporters to yell those questions in his general direction.

Regardless, Mr. Harper’s commitment to the highest calibre of clarity and consistency is to be appreciated, even if it comes a bit late to, say, initiate a rational discussion about establishing a price on carbon.

But Mr. Harper’s principles do not now extend merely to clarity and consistency, but also to personal responsibility—of accepting responsibility not only for what one does or does not do  (Mr. Wright, he said a few times, would be “accountable” for his actions), but for whatever might result from one’s decisions.

“Once again, we are waiting for some clarity and some consistency from the leader of the NDP on matters that are now before a major commission,” Mr. Harper ventured awhile later. “Maybe if this individual had been clear with the public and with authorities some 17 years ago, the kind of things that led to the Charbonneau Commission would not be happening today.”

The suggestion that Mr. Mulcair is responsible for the corruption that now plagues the province of Quebec might seem a dubious one. But it is at least something for Mr. Mulcair to think about as he falls asleep tonight.

Likewise, it would seem to be for Mr. Harper to contemplate how it is he came to find himself having to stand another 20 times this afternoon.

On that count, it was actually a question from Justin Trudeau that seemed most heavy this afternoon.  “Mr. Speaker, in December 2008, despite promises to the contrary, the Prime Minister appointed 18 senators,” the Liberal leader recalled to preface the day’s 18th query. “I would ask the Prime Minister to explain why he chose Mike Duffy to be a senator?”

The Prime Minister allowed that this was “an interesting question.”

You see, it was all because the Liberals and New Democrats were threatening to replace Mr. Harper’s government after Mr. Harper’s Finance Minister tabled an inflammatory response to the economic crisis of 2008.

“Of course,” Mr. Harper explained, “for almost three years I left the Senate vacancies unfilled…”

Save, in one case, for that Michael Fortier fellow, who, as it happens, now favours abolishing the other place.

“… and what happened in that period when we were trying to get those filled by elected people?” Mr. Harper wondered aloud. “The Liberal Party and other parties got together and tried to fill those Senate vacancies with their own people.”

Technically, they signed a governance accord that allowed for the possibility of appointing senators.

“Obviously,” Mr. Harper concluded, “that is why, as I said at the time, I acted to ensure that if the Senate is not going to be elected, it would at least support the government that Canadians did elect.”

So it is on the basis of that problematic reading of representative democracy that Mr. Harper says he appointed 18 senators in December 2008.

But that does not explain why one of those senators was Mike Duffy. And it is Mr. Harper who is entirely responsible for that decision. As it is Mr. Harper who employed Mr. Wright.

That the electorate did not vote for the Conservatives in sufficient numbers to provide it with the seats necessary to pass legislation to reform the Senate in 2006 and thus spare Mr. Harper the indignity of appointing senators is, of course, unfortunate and each and every one of you who failed to vote Conservative that year should feel tremendous shame for what you have caused. But otherwise Mr. Harper would seem to have to accept some responsibility for Mike Duffy. At least as much as the corruption in Quebec is Mr. Mulcair’s.

If only Jim Flaherty had tabled something other than the economic update he provided on November 27, 2008. Come to think of it, maybe this is all his fault.