Allowing the Prime Minister a brief reprieve from the incessant questions about Nigel Wright, Mike Duffy and the disastrous pact to make $90,000 disappear, Paul Calandra, Mr. Harper’s parliamentary secretary, stood and told stories about his father’s pizza delivery business.
“My father owned a pizza store,” Mr. Calandra reported. “He worked 16 to 18 hours a day. I can tell you what my father would not have done if he saw somebody stealing from his cash register. He would not have said—”
Across the aisle, a voice shouted that Mr. Calandra’s father wouldn’t have paid his employee’s legal fees. The New Democrats laughed, as they did often this afternoon.
“—’You are suspended, but make sure you come back every two weeks and collect a paycheque,’ ” Mr. Calandra continued. “I tell the House what he would have said. He would have said, ‘You are fired, leave,’ and he would have called the police.”
Granted, a full analogy requires imagining the world’s most intriguing pizza shop, one which we, the voting public, own. One where the assistant to the store manager initially told the employee that his taking of the money “complied with all the applicable rules” of the cash register and where the assistant to the store manager then agreed to provide the employee with money to restock the cash register. Only this was kept secret—at least from the store owner and the store manager, though at least a few other employees were told about it—and the employee alleges he was advised on a cover story to explain the repayment. The employee also says he was threatened with expulsion from the pizza shop if he did not agree to go along with the assistant to the manager’s plan. And then a subsidiary of the pizza shop, for which the store manager is CEO, agreed to cover the employee’s legal fees after, in the employee’s version, he insisted on a written agreement that the repayment would not amount to an admission of guilt. And then five months later the employee the store manager had appointed to be his representative in the kitchen announced that the employee should be fired. And then the employee stood up in the middle of the shop and started to tell everyone what had happened. And other employees, otherwise friendly to the store manager, started to suggest it would be rash to fire him. And then the individual that the store manager had appointed to be his representative in the kitchen started musing about maybe going easier on a couple of other employees who were also accused of taking money from the cash register. And we were silly enough to make this pizza store bicameral.
And so now we, the owners, are both enthralled and repulsed by the drama of our little pizza shop. And maybe we are starting to wonder if we should buy a McDonald’s or take a chance and invest in an Extreme Pita.
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair arrived this afternoon bearing news from distant lands.
“Mr. Speaker, I have just come back from Brandon and I met a lot of people there who are very disappointed in the Prime Minister. That includes a lot of people who voted Conservative in the last election who are very sorry that they did not get the clean, ethical government the Prime Minister promised them,” Mr. Mulcair reported. “All across Canada, including Brandon, people are all asking the same question: Why does the Prime Minister keep changing his story?”
Mr. Harper disagreed with Mr. Mulcair’s interpretation.
“Mr. Speaker, there has been no change of story,” he said.
The New Democrats laughed.
“On the contrary,” the Prime Minister continued, “the events are extremely well known.”
Not merely well known, no, the events here are extremely well known. They are not merely understood, they are seared into the mind.
“Senators collected expenditures that they should not have collected in our judgment, and of course a member of my staff facilitated an improper payment on that,” Mr. Harper recounted. “That member has been removed and those senators who have taken improper payment should be removed from the public payroll.”
If the Prime Minister’s story has changed, it has done so in two rather needless ways.
First, in his statement to the House in June that Mr. Wright’s “decisions … were not communicated to me or to members of my office,” an assessment that was undermined a month later when it was revealed that Mr. Wright had told the RCMP something different. Second, in Mr. Harper’s use of the word “dismissed” to describe how Mr. Wright had come to be separated from the Prime Minister’s Office, a verb that seems at odds with earlier claims that Mr. Wright had resigned. Though it would be interesting to know on what basis Mr. Harper offered the former declaration—and perhaps why he even bothered to offer it when he did—the latter is perhaps merely the silly use of of an inaccurate word and perhaps neither are necessarily ruinous for the Prime Minister’s cause. But they are at least unsteady steps when Mr. Harper is already walking on something other than solid ground*.
“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair asked with his third opportunity, “yesterday Senator Duffy said that there were at least two cheques involved in his deal with the Prime Minister’s office. How many cheques were there?”
Mr. Harper would not answer the question asked, but he would furrow his brow and attempt to explain.
“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Duffy makes reference to the fact that the party reimbursed him for some legal expenses,” the Prime Minister said.
“Ohhh!” cried the New Democrats.
“That is a regular practice. The party regularly reimburses—”
“Ohhh!” cried the New Democrats again.
“Mr. Speaker,” the Prime Minister continued, “the party regularly reimburses members of its caucus for valid legal expenses, as do other parties.”
Mr. Mulcair wondered who was aware of the second cheque and, after that failed to receive a direct reply, the NDP leader used his fifth opportunity for mockery.
“Mr. Speaker, on May 28, the Prime Minister said that there was ‘…no legal agreement’ in the Duffy affair,” Mr. Mulcair recalled. “How many lawyers does it take to negotiate no legal agreement?”
Mr. Mulcair sat and laughed. The New Democrats stood and cheered.
“Once again, Mr. Speaker, I have no idea what the member is referring to,” Mr. Harper pleaded.
“Ohhh!” sighed the New Democrats.
“What I do know, Mr. Speaker, the facts in this case,” Mr. Harper continued. And now he chopped and swiped his right hand this way and that and jabbed his index finger at the air. “Mr. Duffy took $90,000 of expense money he did not actually incur. He was told to pay it back,” Mr. Harper recounted. “He committed to paying it back. He in fact said publicly he had paid it back. That turned out to be a story told by Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright. As a consequence, Mr. Wright no longer works on the public payroll and Mr. Duffy should not be on the public payroll either.”
The Conservatives stood and cheered.
Behold this mess. We know not what it amounts to.
It is surely entertaining, but what is it exactly? It is not quite a matter of public policy. It might eventually prove to be a matter for the courts. It might somehow be construed as some test or question of character or some statement on someone or someones or some thing, but of who and how? Is this something unique to a particular party or individual or even the practice of professional politics or is this just the sort of thing that happens when power and ambition and entitlement are involved, only here it is the public’s business?
It is $90,000 and, seemingly, some attempt to make that $90,000 matters less than however much it did in the first place. And now it is regular twists and revelations and all manners of business that we were surely not meant to know. It is Mike Duffy, standing in the ornate chamber of our Senate, breaking his greatest story to the nation, his disembodied voice broadcast across the networks, teasing out the details with the aplomb of an infomercial pitchman, as others have suggested, or an eccentric uncle telling a wondrous bedtime story. It is Thomas Mulcair, standing tall and staring down the Prime Minister, cross-examining his witness with question after question after question—simple questions driven by a slowly unfolding drama. It is Justin Trudeau in the corner, outdone by Mr. Mulcair on this file, but still holding that promise of something somehow better, or at least an extended lead in the polls. It is Stephen Harper, challenged as never before, perhaps struggling as never before. A man who beat Michael Ignatieff, Stephane Dion and Jack Layton, out-maneuvered the press gallery and outclassed his most wild-eyed critics, now struggling to beat Mike Duffy, one of his own appointees, a celebrity who travelled the country singing the government’s praises, assailing its opponents and raising money for the Conservative cause. A Prime Minister having to answer not for any official policy or action or inaction of his government, but for some tawdry agreement with a political appointee. A politician who has survived or sidestepped so many questions about what he and his government have done, threatened by a deal to make $90,000 disappear. And a Prime Minister’s Office facing precisely the sort of scrutiny it is not supposed to attract.
It is a spectacle, with tales of grubbiness and secrecy and underhandedness, private emails and cheques and phone calls. All of it laid out on the public table. With the possibility of more to come tomorrow, or in the next episode. Here now, we are seeing how one of our pizzas came to be made. And it is actually rather mesmerizing.
It might yet prove a passing fancy, of course. How will this matter in two years? Will it be a footnote? Will it prove to be a drag on whatever good news the government attempts to herald from here on? Will it be salt in the wound of any other misstep the government makes? Is this a government burning away its capital and credibility? Is this the beginning of the end of the Harper government? Or just the most entertaining drama on TV? Or both?
The Prime Minister’s explanation for the second cheque seemingly left something of an incongruity—why pay legal expenses which, at least in Mr. Duffy’s telling, were related to a matter that was, as Mr. Harper concedes, inappropriate?
Mr. Harper otherwise insisted on his version of events. This was a matter between Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy. Mr. Duffy had done a bad thing. Mr. Wright had done a bad thing. People who do bad things should be held responsible and accountable. Yesterday, Mr. Harper’s parliamentary secretary had suggested that the three senators facing suspension might apologize. Today, Mr. Harper said the time for apologies was over. Whatever the government leader in the Senate was willing to do for Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, Mr. Harper said the time for settlements had passed. Mr. Harper made his resolute hand gestures and persisted in focusing on the few widely agreed-upon—or at least the least disputed—facts. He insisted that he had been deceived. At one point, he seemed to confirm that Mr. Duffy had been threatened somehow (“Mr. Duffy was being threatened with sanctions because he collected expenses he should not have collected”).
But Mr. Mulcair just kept coming up—the NDP leader taking each and every of his party’s allotted spots to stand some 26 times in the space of 45 minutes. And eventually the NDP leader seemed to narrow in on the matter of the second cheque.
“Why did the Prime Minister, if it is also inappropriate, ask the Conservative lawyers to pay his expenses?” Mr. Mulcair asked. “Why the contradiction?”
“Once again, Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Harper explained, “political parties do provide legal assistance to their members from time to time.”
“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister therefore sees nothing wrong with using the money of the Conservative Party to reimburse the legal expenses of someone he says has broken the law. That is the ethics of the Prime Minister,” Mr. Mulcair thus pronounced. “Duly noted.”
Or were the legal expenses and the agreement with Nigel Wright not related? What precisely did the Conservative party pay for? Is the second cheque a red herring?
A moment later, Mr. Mulcair decided to forgo entirely a question. “It is true that Mike Duffy has almost zero credibility,” he declared, “but his story is still more believable than that of the Prime Minister and that is quite a feat.”
Mr. Harper was unimpressed. “Mr. Speaker, this is extraordinary,” the Prime Minister ventured. “The leader of the NDP thinks he can believe Mr. Duffy, who said on national television that he took out a loan against his assets to repay money he had taken inappropriately from the taxpayers…”
“It was in the script!” cried a voice from the opposition side, seemingly in reference to Mr. Duffy’s allegation that the bit about the bank loan was a suggestion of someone in Mr. Harper’s office.
“… and now turns around and says, ‘By the way, I never should have repaid any of it. I was entitled to it all the time. It is not my fault that I made up these lies on national television.” That is Mr. Duffy’s responsibility and why he should be sanctioned.”
Speaking of extraordinary, that the Prime Minister should have to answer for accusations made by a senator who says he was previously only doing and saying what the Prime Minister’s Office told him to do and say and that the Prime Minister should counter that that doing and saying demonstrates the senator’s unreliability—that too is a rather extraordinary moment.
It’s all rather extraordinary, this pizza shop of ours.
“Mr. Speaker, just to conclude that story, we also had a driver, Eugene,” Mr. Calandra explained with his second opportunity. “He was a Philippine immigrant and he used to deliver pizzas. Part of the agreement was that he would provide receipts for gas. Could Eugene have provided extra receipts? He could have, but he did not. He was honourable. That is the standard that we should expect from our senators. If we can expect it from a guy who delivers pizza, we certainly should be able to expect it from senators.”
And so we know what we must do. We must find Eugene. And we must make him a senator. Or perhaps put him in charge of the PMO.
*A few hours later, on second thought, the wording of this paragraph has changed. It originally read, “Though it would be interesting to know on what basis Mr. Harper offered the former declaration—and perhaps why he even bothered to offer it when he did—neither is quite ruinous for the Prime Minister’s cause. But they are unsteady steps when Mr. Harper is already walking on something other than solid ground.”
I’ve also adjusted the pizza store analogy slightly to change who was responsible for announcing that the employee should be fired.