The sketch: Stephen Harper, circa the fourth week of November 2013 - Macleans.ca

The sketch: Stephen Harper, circa the fourth week of November 2013

Look what Nigel Wright, Mike Duffy and a $90,000 cheque hath wrought

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The Prime Minister might’ve just said, “no.”

“Did the Prime Minister know about the original plan from the PMO to repay Mike Duffy’s illegal expenses using money from the Conservative Party?” the NDP leader asked yesterday. “Did he know about that plan, yes or no?”

Just last week, after the Prime Minister’s own answers had proved to be insufficiently clear, Mr. Harper’s office had clarified for reporters that Mr. Harper had not, in fact, been aware of any such plan to have the Conservative party cover Mr. Duffy’s expenses.

“The answer is no,” the Prime Minister’s director of communications, Jason MacDonald, told the CBC.

“He didn’t know,” Mr. Harper’s spokesman told Postmedia. “Period.”

On Saturday, in an interview with the CBC, Mr. MacDonald said of Mr. Harper that, “he had no knowledge of discussions that would see the fund repay.”

On Sunday, asked by CTV’s Robert Fife whether Mr. Harper knew that his staff had asked the Conservative to cover Mr. Duffy’s expenses, Mr. MacDonald said “absolutely not.”

So Mr. Harper might’ve stood here in the House of Commons and said exactly and only those words—”The answer is no. I didn’t know. I had no knowledge of discussions that would see the fund repay. Absolutely not. Period.” Instead, he stood and said all of the following.

“Again, Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear on that. It was my view from the beginning, as I told Mr. Duffy, that he should repay his own expenses. I did not suggest the party should repay them or Mr. Wright should repay them or anybody else. Once again, Mr. Speaker, I was told that Mr. Duffy would repay them. I was told he had repaid them, not anybody else, Mr. Speaker. I couldn’t be clearer on that fact. And those are the facts. And, of course, as we know, that wasn’t true, and that’s why two individuals are under investigation.”

Mr. Mulcair was unimpressed. “Still afraid to give a straight answer,” the NDP leader sighed.

Possibly, rather, our politicians are slowly losing the ability to communicate according to traditional standards of human dialogue. Probably Twitter is to blame for this.

A month ago, and a day after Mr. Duffy stood in the Senate and told his story and explained how he and Mr. Wright and Mr. Harper—”just the three of us”—had had a chat, the Prime Minister was asked whether Mr. Wright had been present when Mr. Harper told Mr. Duffy to repay his expenses. For whatever reason—and he has shown himself, at times during this affair, to be capable of simple, declarative answers—Mr. Harper did not then say, “yes.”

And on Tuesday he would not just say, “no” and now matters in the House would get well and truly confused.

Mr. Mulcair asked if Mr. Harper had been aware of a promise to cover Mr. Duffy’s legal fees. Mr. Harper seemed to misunderstand the question. “Mr. Speaker,” he responded, “as I have said repeatedly, no, on that, a fact that is well known. No such payment took place.”

Except that there would otherwise seem to be no dispute that such a payment did in fact take place.

Mr. Mulcair reminded the Prime Minister that the question was about the legal fees and then wondered if Mr. Harper had been aware of a plan to have Mr. Duffy withdrawn from Deloitte’s audit. In response, Mr. Harper stood and sought to clarify the matter of the legal expenses, saying that he became aware of that payment on May 15, but that it was not a surprise to him. Mr. Mulcair then stood and tried to return to his question about the Deloitte audit. “How about Deloitte?” Mr. Mulcair asked. Mr. Harper then stood and said he was not sure what the question was. “As we know, Deloitte was retained by the Senate of Canada to do an audit, and Deloitte stands by the findings of its audit,” Mr. Harper offered anyway.

At least most often these six months have been slightly less confusing than Tuesday afternoon. But it is has perhaps not generally been much more straightforward.

It is has been six long months now of parsing and fussing and guessing and theorizing. Since May 15, Mr. Mulcair has asked something like 250 questions on this matter—and keep in mind that the House did not sit for a third of June, all of July, August and September, and half of October. Maybe some of those questions haven’t been perfectly precise or charitable or necessary—surely Mr. Mulcair is drawing this out for his own purposes—but maybe only a fraction of them would’ve been asked if Mr. Harper had more proactively explained himself. Or if his office hadn’t chosen earlier this year to take ownership of Mr. Duffy’s problem. Or if the Prime Minister had just nominated Mr. Duffy to represent Ontario instead of PEI.

And now the questions seems endless. And Question Period is suddenly regarded anew as a relevant test (or at least compelling theatre). And Parliament seems to matter, at least on this count, even as the details of this matter reinforce the most serious concerns about this grand showcase of our democracy.

You’ll understand the Prime Minister isn’t much for explaining and that, up until six months ago, that wasn’t much of a problem. But Mr. Mulcair insists on persisting—at some point, it was decided that a prosecutorial manner might be a good approach for him here and now it has become something like a trademark—and where Mr. Harper has mostly declined to explain matters, Mike Duffy and the RCMP have been expansive (and, in the case of the latter, operating with investigative powers).

And so while Mr. Mulcair might’ve otherwise run out of questions to ask weeks ago, he has been regularly supplied with new material. And a Prime Minister who has so succeeded in controlling matters (the narrative, the discourse, the flow of information) these last seven years has suddenly found something that so far exceeds his grasp. And a government that thrives on simple clarity (taxes are bad, criminals are bad, etc) is struggling to keep things simple and clear, no matter how many times the Prime Minister uses the word. What seems to have started as some attempt to control a relatively small matter—a Conservative senator’s questionable claim of a housing allowance—has become an uncontrollable spill that threatens to mark the undoing of a Prime Minister.

That Mr. Harper didn’t know about the $90,000 cheque might be his saving grace—to have known might’ve compelled his resignation.

But that leaves everything else we now know to be either known, said or alleged.

We know that as of June 5, the Prime Minister was not aware that three members of his staff knew of Nigel Wright’s decision to cover Mr. Duffy’s expenses. That it is alleged that some thought was given to having the Conservative party cover Mr. Duffy’s expenses. That it is alleged that Senator Irving Gerstein made some effort to contact Deloitte while the agency was auditing Mr. Duffy. That Mr. Duffy did not cooperate with that audit. That it is alleged that the Senate committee’s report on Mr. Duffy was edited at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office. That, according to the Prime Minister’s director of communications, Mr. Harper was aware of some plan to “compel” Mr. Duffy to repay his expense claims. That, according to an email sent by Mr. Wright, Mr. Harper knew “only in broad terms” that Mr. Wright had “personally assisted” Mr. Duffy.

We are told that Mr. Harper was not aware of any plan to have the Conservative party cover Mr. Duffy’s expenses. That he was not aware of any attempt to influence the Deloitte audit and that he would have put a stop to any such effort had he known beforehand. And that he did not know of any intervention by member’s of his office to edit the Senate committee’s report on Mr. Duffy.

But that there has been no condemnation of that particular allegation.

We know that Senator Irving Gerstein and Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen are both still members of the Conservative caucus and two of the individuals alleged to have been involved in the machinations around Mr. Duffy are still employed within Mr. Harper’s government.

We know that last week’s filing by the RCMP revealed all sorts of correspondence detailing all sorts of things we were never supposed to know about.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, likely none of his predecessors would have much wanted to explain all that. Unluckily for the Prime Minister, the notion of responsible government and the nature of a Westminster parliament make it difficult for him to completely avoid demands that he tender an explanation.

It’s easy to see how on May 16, when the basic exchange of a $90,000 cheque was public knowledge, but Nigel Wright was still the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, this might’ve seemed just another controversy that the government would endure. It’s easy to see now that that was naive. And now so much has been exposed. And now we wait to see whether the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff will be charged with a crime.

And this is altogether no way to run a pizza parlour.

Mr. Mulcair just keeps standing up—14 times per afternoon when the Prime Minister is in attendance. And when Justin Trudeau is present, the Prime Minister gets at least three more questions. On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau stood six times, meaning the Prime Minister was compelled to acknowledge a total of 20 questions, even if he was not required to acknowledge the content of said queries.

On Tuesday, Mr. Mulcair wondered whether Mr. Harper agreed with Mr. MacDonald that a “cover-up” had taken place and why no one else had been dismissed as a result of the affair. Mr. Harper was once more besmirched.

“When the leader of the opposition starts tarnishing the names of people who face no allegations whatsoever,” the Prime Minister lamented, “I am reminded once again of the old saying, ‘When you throw mud, you lose ground.’ ”

So at least after six months of this the Prime Minister still maintains his robust sense of humour and generous appreciation for irony.

Mr. Trudeau then wondered about the Prime Minister’s judgment of Mr. Gerstein and then Mr. Mulcair proceeded with a series of yes or no questions seemingly intended to ascertain precisely what it was the Prime Minister knew about whatever was going on within the Prime Minister’s Office.

And Tuesday was, relatively speaking, a good day. If only by a margin of 1.4 percentage points. In a riding a Conservative won two years ago by 39.4 percentage points.

It must be noted that as he sat in the House of Commons this week, Mr. Harper still led a side that still had to be considered the odds-on favourite to win the most seats in a general election in 2015. There are any number of reasons to believe he and his party will recover from this dreadful year. They are still raising the most money, still hovering within general reach of another majority government, still tested and experienced and blessed of the advantage of incumbency and still looking across the aisle at two rookie leaders. And at least until the orange team or the red team have proven capable of victory, or at least until the polls put the Conservatives under 20% or so, the blue team must be considered most likely to emerge victorious.

But an anonymous Conservative MP has suggested the Prime Minister might have to go if charges are laid. And unnamed Conservative MPs are apparently willing to agree with a suggestion that there are problems in the PMO. And the Ghost of Conservative Past is musing in the pages of the Toronto Star. And a member of the riding association in Pontiac is demanding answers.

And at some point all governments exhaust the electorate or fall apart or both. And so even if it’s still easy to see how Mr. Harper might still win (again), it’s perhaps easier than it’s ever been to see how he might not.

Yesterday, Mr. Mulcair returned to the details of the discussions within the PMO and to what precisely Mr. Harper had given Mr. Wright approval on February 22 and then Mr. Trudeau returned to this matter of Mr. Gerstein.

In response, as he had the day before, Mr. Harper noted that it was “two individuals” who were currently the subject of RCMP investigations.

Mr. Mulcair now made his move.

“Mr. Speaker, is that the Prime Minister’s code of ethics, the Criminal Code?” he wondered aloud, smiling slightly and staring directly at Mr. Harper. “In other words, if one is not under criminal investigation by the RCMP, no matter how reprehensible it is not really wrong. Is that the standard that he is holding the government to?”

The New Democrats stood and cheered their man’s bewilderment. The Conservatives yapped and heckled. Mr. Mulcair might’ve left things there, but he apparently had another question he actually intended to put to the Prime Minister.

“What is the ethical difference between a $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright and a $32,000 cheque from the Conservative party?” he added. “Here is a hint. The answer is not $58,000.”

Once more the New Democrats stood and cheered.

Up came Mr. Harper.

“Mr. Speaker there are two individuals—”

“Ohh!” moaned the New Democrats.

“—who are responsible for the payment in question, a payment that was made without authority and that was not properly reported or disclosed,” Mr. Harper explained, as the other side yapped and heckled.

Now he began to jab the air in front of him.

“In this party, we hold those who undertake actions responsible for their own actions,” he declared. “Unlike the leader of the NDP, we don’t slander a whole bunch of other people—”

“Hahaha!” laughed the New Democrats, drowning out the Prime Minister as he then attempted to make reference to the envelope Mr. Mulcair was presented with in 1994 and compelling the Speaker to intervene.

“Mr. Speaker, as soon as I became aware of this information I revealed it publicly and gave all of the information to investigators,” Mr. Harper added when order had been restored. “We do not do what the leader of the NDP does, forget for 17 years to provide this information to the…”

The end of his sentence was overwhelmed by the cheers of his caucus.

“Good to go!” Mr. Mulcair responded with a grin.

The Conservatives yapped and the NDP leader proceeded to press the matter of Mr. Duffy’s residency and that matter’s involvement in the PMO’s machinations. Mr. Harper stood and and chopped his right hand and stressed that the RCMP had found that the Prime Minister was unaware of any payment to Mr. Duffy.

“If the leader of the NDP had any honesty, he would accept that judgment,” the Prime Minister ventured.

The Conservatives stood and cheered and then Mr. Mulcair stood and turned to what the RCMP documents said of Mr. Gerstein. The NDP leader mocked the Prime Minister’s disapproval and then jabbed his finger and wondered why the senator was still a member of the Conservative caucus.

“Mr. Speaker, once again, there are two individuals under investigation, and of course it is not that individual,” the Prime Minister explained, perhaps coming unfortunately close to confirming Mr. Mulcair’s chiding about the Criminal Code.

Mr. Harper now chided Mr. Mulcair for having had legal fees covered by his party and the Conservatives stood and cheered and Mr. Mulcair stood and waited and then shouted across the aisle.

“Mr. Speaker, the only reason there was no payment from the Conservative Party was because the price was too high,” Mr. Mulcair offered. “Are we talking principle or price?”

He held his stare on the Prime Minister as he returned to his seat. Mr. Harper stood and stressed the inappropriateness of the actions of Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy. Mr. Mulcair stood and and chopped his hand and shouted a question about why no one else had been fired. Mr. Harper pumped his fist and chopped his hand and testified that “when presented with the facts, we have taken appropriate action.”

Now Mr. Mulcair returned to the RCMP filing and an email from Mr. Wright suggesting that Mr. Harper had been somehow aware of how Mr. Wright had “personally assisted” Mr. Duffy.

“What did the Prime Minister know about the personal assistance that Mr. Wright gave Mr. Duffy?” Mr. Mulcair wondered.

“One clear answer for once,” he begged.

Mr. Harper ventured he had “addressed that issue on many occasions” and then reminded everyone that the RCMP had been very clear about his relative ignorance.

There was a question then about Carolyn Stewart Olsen (and then two about the chair of the Mint) and then Mr. Trudeau was back on his feet, attempting to join the cross-examination of Stephen Harper.

“Mr. Speaker,” the Liberal leader suggested, “the Prime Minister continues to puzzle Canadians with his support of Irving Gerstein in the Senate.”

Mr. Harper would now attempt to clarify for Canadians precisely what matters here.

“Mr. Speaker, I simply point out what the real issue here is,” the Prime Minister explained. “The real issue is that Senator Duffy made inappropriate expense claims and claimed publicly that he had repaid them, when he knew that was not the case. It was in fact Mr. Wright who repaid them, and Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy did not properly disclose this transaction. When we became aware of that, we made sure that it was reported publicly. We have taken the appropriate action and it is those two individuals who are under investigation for this particular affair.”

In a way, Mr. Harper is quite right about the real issue here. In various other ways, we are well past that.