The sketch: Stephen Harper sits down and Mike Duffy stands up - Macleans.ca

The sketch: Stephen Harper sits down and Mike Duffy stands up

The senator for PEI scorches the earth and singes the red carpet

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Senators arriving to work on Tuesday afternoon had first to get past a small band of photographers huddled outside in the cold October air around the brass doors that serve as the official front door to Parliament’s Centre Block for members of the red chamber. Inside, and up the 26 steps that senators must climb to get to the Senate foyer, the press gallery had set up a second line, some nine television cameras and more than a dozen reporters, standing in wait on the marble floor, flanked by sandstone pillars and surrounded by the grand portraits of kings and queens. One by one, senators would proceed through the doors, up the steps and, escorted by Senate security, into the mob, which would encircle and pester them with questions. Only once they set feet on the red carpet that marks the exclusive domain of the Senate, were senators safe from their press gallery tormentors.

“Brazeau!” a reporter called when Patrick Brazeau arrived and the mob closed in and attempted, without success, to coax a comment from him. The officially independent and variously beleaguered senator was preceded by Pamela Wallin and followed by Mike Duffy, each appearing on Parliament Hill to stand trial, accused of “gross negligence” in the management of their parliamentary resources and facing the possibility of suspension from the upper chamber of Parliament. The government that appointed them to the Senate was moving now to have them banned from this place.

***

Down the hall, the members of the House of Commons were convening for Question Period. And while the Senate prepared to puts three of its members on trial, the opposition in the House would now cross-examine the Prime Minister as a hostile (and ultimately uncooperative) witness.

Thomas Mulcair stood tall and stared directly at Stephen Harper, the NDP leader revisiting the prosecutorial air that he adopted in questioning the Prime Minister this spring. “Mr. Speaker, does the Prime Minister regret any of his actions?” Mr. Mulcair wondered. “Not Nigel Wright’s actions, not Mike Duffy’s actions, but does the Prime Minister regret any of his own actions in the Senate scandal?”

Mr. Harper stood and said only that his government expected the rules to be followed and that those who failed to follow the rules should be held accountable. He then assured the House that the government would focus on “the real priorities of Canadians, and that is jobs, growth and making sure we have opportunity for future generations.”

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All the same perhaps Mr. Harper might regret telling the House last June that Mr. Wright’s decision to cover Mr. Duffy’s bill had not been communicated to any other member of the Prime Minister’s Office. “Mr. Speaker, on June 5, the Prime Minister said that no one else in his office knew about Nigel Wright’s $90,000 payment to Mike Duffy. Was that true?” Mr. Mulcair asked with his second question.

Mr. Harper pleaded that he had already answered this question and indeed he has, claiming that what he said in June was based on the information he had at the time, a response that, unfortunately, only begs more questions about the basis on which Mr. Harper spoke. “Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair asked with his fifth opportunity, “how are Canadians supposed to know if the Prime Minister is telling the truth if he does not know himself?”

Mr. Harper hesitated and then responded by suggesting the NDP had offered contradictory accounts of its position on the free trade deal with Europe. “So what are Canadians to believe?” Mr. Harper asked himself. “They are to believe that the only party that is focused on the real needs, focused on the economy and doing things for Canada is this government.”

The Conservatives stood and applauded, the official policy now seeming to be that this matter of Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright and perhaps the government’s general ability to explain itself does not (or perhaps should not) amount to a real concern.

Mr. Harper took three questions from Liberal leader Justin Trudeau—”We do not assure Canadians that everything will be perfect, but we do assure Canadians that when anything goes wrong, people will be held accountable,” Mr. Harper told the House—and then Mr. Mulcair returned to his feet and Mr. Harper decided he was mostly done with standing.

The NDP leader asked the Prime Minister to explain the allegation, conveyed by Mr. Duffy’s lawyers, that someone—”we”—was developing “lines” for Mr. Duffy as part of a “scenario” to repay the questionable expenses. Government House leader Peter Van Loan motioned for the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, to stand and take this. The New Democrats were unimpressed. “You want to be the big leader, answer the questions,” David Christopherson shouted across the aisle at the Prime Minister.

Mr. Mulcair, reminding the House that only the Prime Minister could answer these questions and venturing that the public would “severely judge the Prime Minister’s silence,” kept on. Had Nigel Wright been present when the Prime Minister spoke to Mike Duffy on February 13? What was in the binder that Mr. Wright provided to the RCMP? Did the Prime Minister or anyone else in his office threaten Mike Duffy with expulsion from the Senate? Had other senators received similar deals? And what about the audit of Ms. Wallin’s expenses?

Mr. Harper twice shook his head dismissively at the NDP leader’s question and once was compelled to stand and respond—receiving a a mocking ovation from the NDP for doing so—but otherwise remained seated as his parliamentary secretary stood to take seven questions from the leader of the opposition.

The Prime Minister would return to his feet sometime later, to answer a question about his Intergovernmental Affairs Minister’s personal position on Quebec secession.

***

In the Senate, Ms. Wallin, Mr. Duffy and Mr. Brazeau sat side-by-side-by-side along the back row of the opposition’s side of the chamber, surrounded to their immediate left, right and front by empty chairs.

Around three o’clock, after the Senate had finished with its own Question Period and various procedural matters and voted to co-sign with the House a message of congratulations to the Queen on the occasion of Prince George’s birth, the upper chamber moved to the consideration of Messrs Duffy and Brazeau and Ms. Wallin. Reading from a small stack of paper held in his left hand, Senator Claude Carignan, government leader in the Senate, took an hour to review the cases of the three senators and to explain why the Senate both could and must act to remove the trio from its midst forthwith. The manner and frequency of their errors amounted to “wilful contempt of the institution” and to protect the Senate and preserve the public’s trust, he explained, senators should act. For awhile, the NDP’s Charlie Angus and Pat Martin sat beside each other in the gallery above, like Statler and Waldorf observing the Muppet Show.

Liberal senators, but also Conservative senator Hugh Segal, probed the soundness of Senator Carignan’s argument and then Liberal Senate leader James Cowan took the floor. What the three senators had done was “wrong,” Cowan said. He had, he would say, “no sympathy” for them. But the three senators were entitled to due process, and this was not due process. Cowan recalled how Winston Churchill had, during the blitz, described parliamentary customs and traditions as “the splendour of our moral and political inheritance.” “If Churchill could be determined to uphold our parliamentary ‘moral and political inheritance’ while bombs were falling, surely the challenges we face today merit nothing less,” Senator Cowan declared. “Let’s be very clear:  political bombshells must not be allowed to justify trampling on basic rights under our Canadian system of justice.” Senators Duffy and Wallin applauded.

At half past five, Mike Duffy stood in his spot along the back row in the far left corner and the Speaker gave him the floor.

A lot of questions needed answers, he said, and he would seek now to defend his “good name.” The senator for Prince Edward Island proceed then to scorch the earth, or at least to singe the carpet. “I allowed myself to be intimidated to do what I knew in my heart was wrong,” he explained. Glasses perched on the end of his nose, his fists pumping and his left index finger wagging and jabbing, gesturing to individuals on the other side of the chamber, Duffy delivered his remarks with aplomb, sounding here like, well, a TV reporter broadcasting a fantastic exclusive. A senator who was told his expense claims were in order by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, a man who had violated no laws and broken no rules, but who was pressured into accepting guilt and allowing that chief of staff to settle his tab under threat of expulsion from the Senate. And now still the Senate was threatening him with suspension. A man who had come to the Senate to make the country a better place, now he worried that he wouldn’t be able to get the heart medication he needs. This was the stuff of Iraq or Iran or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He harkened to the days of Diefenbaker and Trudeau. He named various names. The words “bribery” and “extortion” were uttered. He wished he had the “courage” to refuse to take part in this “monstrous political scheme.” He dismissed the boys in short pants at the PMO and Pat Martin, now seated in the front of the gallery, leaning over the railing on his elbow, smiled. When Mr. Duffy was finally done, the Liberal senators applauded.

Mr. Brazeau went next and though he could not hope to have matched the performance that preceded him, he gave a good effort, lecturing the Senate on its ethics and standing, speaking emotionally and wagging his finger and demanding due process. “If this is the Harper government’s way of believing in democracy and exercising democracy, I think we should all be very fearful,” he told the Senate. “This is a complete joke, a complete farce. And Stephen Harper, you lost my vote.”

And with that the Senate decided that it had heard enough for the day and voted to adjourn.