Ralph Goodale stood and Stephen Harper apparently decided the Liberal did not require a prime ministerial answer and so, after a couple less instructive responses, the House proceeded once again to Story Time with Paul Calandra. Coming soon, presumably, to CBC radio.
“Mr. Speaker, this would be a good time to give another story. I know how fond the House is of stories,” the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary joked. “I have two daughters, a seven-year-old and a five-year-old, two beautiful girls, Natalie and Olivia, and each week I give them an allowance. Part of that allowance might be for cleaning their rooms. Both Natalie and Olivia know that sometimes their mother might clean their rooms. They both know that they should not ask for an allowance because they did not actually do the work. If my five-year-old and seven-year-old can figure this out, how is it that these senators cannot figure it out and how is it that the opposition supports that type of activity from our senators?”
The Conservatives stood and cheered.
In fairness, were there a dispute over their entitlement to said allowance, Natalie and Olivia would still be entitled to due process.
Awhile later, it was time for another story.
“One of the first things I taught my daughters when they could speak was their address, so that if they got lost they would know to tell the police or anybody where they live,” Mr. Calandra related. “Only the Liberals and the New Democrats are standing up for people who clearly do not even know where they live.”
So here we have a useful standard for future senate appointments: Are you smarter and more ethical than Paul Calandra’s daughters? Perhaps after Mr. Harper has made Eugene the pizza delivery guy his new chief of staff, he can go ahead and appoint Natalie and Olivia to the Senate. It is a pity only that Mr. Harper didn’t think to make such moves in 2008. If he had we might’ve avoided all this.
In the meantime, Mr. Calandra might explain to his daughters how he figures that the Liberals and New Democrats are “standing up” for the Senate’s infamous trio and why he didn’t mention Don Plett or Don Meredith or Peter Kent or Peter Goldring.
“Mr. Speaker, I would like to give the Prime Minister a chance to be crystal clear and to give a straight answer,” Thomas Mulcair offered at the outset this afternoon. “Did his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resign or was he dismissed by the Prime Minister?”
Mr. Harper now seemed to split the difference between a resignation and a dismissal.
“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Wright and I both agreed that his actions are completely inappropriate,” Mr. Harper explained. “That is why he is no longer working for us.”
The leader of the opposition did not think this was sufficiently clear and so he restated his question en francais. And then the NDP leader returned to the matter of the cheques.
“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair asked, “how many checks have been issued by the Prime Minister’s lawyers to buy the silence of Mike Duffy?”
Mr. Harper did not appreciate Mr. Mulcair’s insinuation. “Mr. Speaker,” the Prime Minister complained, “this claim is false. It is the case, as I said yesterday, that all political parties do provide legal assistance to their members. I believe that is done in his party as well.”
Mr. Harper was actually building to something here, but it was not yet apparent.
“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair wondered, “is negotiating a $90,000 backroom deal to buy the silence of a senator a valid legal expense?”
Mr. Harper now assured the House that he thought Mr. Duffy should repay his expenses (never you mind that statement from the PMO of May 15). As for Mr. Mulcair’s question, Mr. Harper insisted that “the fact of the matter is that parties do assist their members in good standing from time to time with legal expenses.” “The member can confirm it is the case that his political party has on a number of occasions provided him with substantial legal assistance,” Mr. Harper added.
“Ohhh!” the Conservatives exclaimed, John Baird seeming particularly delighted with this tidbit.
Mr. Mulcair carried on. “Exactly what work was done by the law firm Nelligan O’Brien Payne on behalf of the Prime Minister to merit seeing members of the Conservative Party pay $13,000 to that firm?” he asked, chopping both hands in Mr. Harper’s direction. “How is that possible? What real work was done if it were a valid legal expense?”
Mr. Harper repeated his assurance that political parties provide legal assistances to their members of Parliament. And then he made his big reveal.
“In the case of the leader of the NDP, it is my understanding and he can confirm not only has his party in the past paid for certain legal expenses, it even paid findings of wrongdoing against him by a court of law that the party paid almost $100,000 in damages on his behalf,” Mr. Harper reported. “Can he confirm that?”
“Ohhh!” the Conservatives cried as they stood to cheer their man.
Natalie and Olivia might recognize this move: when accused of wrongdoing by a parent, point to the nearest sibling and allege misconduct on their part. In the (oddly similar) histories of both childhood and professional politics, this move has perhaps never actually resulted in absolution for the original accused. But it has at least confused the discussion for a moment and ensured that one is not the only individual tarnished.
The incident in question involves Mr. Mulcair saying something rather unflattering about another individual in 2002. The resulting lawsuit was settled in 2005 at a cost of $95,000, to the Quebec Liberal party, the party to which Mr. Mulcair belonged at the time.
After Story Time with Mr. Calandra, Mr. Mulcair picked up the questioning.
“Mr. Speaker,” the NDP leader asked, “if, as the Prime Minister says, he does not defend the actions of Mr. Duffy, why then is he literally paying to defend the actions of Mr. Duffy?”
Mr. Harper repeated his assurance about the natural paying of legal expenses by political parties and then returned to the attack. “If the Leader of the Opposition thinks this is a problem, why would he have his party not only pay his legal expenses but even pay nearly $100,000 of wrongdoing damages imposed by a court of law? Why?” the Prime Minister wondered, apparently tired of hearing questions and now wishing to ask them.
Here though Mr. Harper stumbled slightly—”That is something the Conservative Party certainly does—does not do. Why did he do it?”—and so Mr. Mulcair took the opportunity to poke fun. “Mr. Speaker,” the NDP leader mocked, “well now that he has told us what they does not does do, let us look at what they does do.”
Mr. Calandra’s daughters would probably understand this to be mean.
“Senator Duffy announced that he would repay his expenses on February 22,” Mr. Mulcair continued. “His expenses were paid back on March 26, more than a month later. What was negotiated between the Prime Minister’s own lawyers and Mike Duffy’s lawyers during that month?”
Mr. Harper repeated that he has been “very clear”—the NDP laughed at this—and proceeded to recount how Mike Duffy had done a bad thing and he should have done the right thing and Nigel Wright was no longer on the public payroll and neither should Mr. Duffy be.
“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair then asked, “how many people knew that lawyers from the Prime Minister’s office and the Conservative Party were negotiating that deal with Mike Duffy?”
Mr. Harper now reminded the House that Mr. Wright had been “very clear about his sole responsibility and his dealings with others on this matter.”
And then Mr. Harper started worrying about the membership of the NDP. “I wonder how many members of the NDP are aware that this party leader not only claims expenses for court cases he loses,” the Prime Minister ventured, “but also expects his political party to actually pay, for him, the damages imposed by a court of law.”
The Conservatives stood and cheered to demonstrate their concern. But possibly Mr. Harper was starting to forget what the point of raising Mr. Mulcair’s settlement was supposed to be.
“How could someone at the Conservative Party approve paying Duffy’s legal bills if Nigel Wright acted alone?” Mr. Mulcair asked.
Mr. Harper shrugged. “Mr. Speaker, once again, that question has been clearly answered,” the Prime Minister claimed. Then he accused the NDP leader of changing his story, apparently because Mr. Mulcair had suggested a day earlier that Mr. Duffy had suggested he was extorted.
Once again, Mr. Mulcair was quite mean in response. “Mr. Speaker,” he said. “I am concerned for your safety, that you might be impaled on the Prime Minister’s increasing proboscis.”
After Question Period, Conservative minister Michelle Rempel would rise on a point of order to express her view that such use of this p-word was rather unparliamentary and the Speaker would helpfully inform the House of the word’s definition and etymology.
“Did the Prime Minister offer Mike Duffy a guarantee that in turn for going along with the repayment scheme the Conservative-controlled Senate would let him off the hook?” Mr. Mulcair wondered.
Mr. Harper was moved to lament for Mr. Mulcair’s tone.
“Mr. Speaker, I am not quite sure what the question is there,” he said. “I am reminded by that particular statement that the finding against the Leader of the Opposition was for libel.”
Mr. Mulcair would repeat his question and Mr. Harper would explain that the Senate “makes its own decisions” and then Mr. Mulcair would read into the record an email released by Mr. Duffy which seems to suggest Mr. Wright was demanding that “action” of Marjory LeBreton’s office be cleared with him. And then the NDP leader began needling Mr. Harper about the expenses of another senator, Carolyn Stewart Olsen, once an advisor in Mr. Harper’s office.
“It is really interesting to see the comportment of this particular individual, making allegations without any substantiation against some individuals, against some senators,” Mr. Harper declared. “However, at the same time, when he is actually caught doing that and convicted in court for having done that, he then expects his political party to pay the fines and the damages for him. That is the kind of person we are dealing with over there.”
The Conservatives stood and cheered.
And over here is a person who apparently sees no problem with his political party covering the legal expenses of a senator even when it is alleged that the legal expenses in question related to an agreement that this person believes was inappropriate.
Hopefully, Mr. Calandra has a charming story about his family that might by way of analogy make sense of this.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.