Getting to the heart of the Duffy affair

What just happened — and what's next? Aaron Wherry explains

Adrian Wyld/CP

After Question Period, the House of Commons resumed consideration of the Liberal corner’s suggestion that perhaps the Prime Minister might appear before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics for a period of three hours for the purposes of explaining his office’s involvement in the repayment of Mike Duffy’s expenses.

And shortly thereafter Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to the Government House leader, stood in his spot on the government side to explain why he would not be supporting the Liberal motion, speaking without notes, alternately pleading for reason and lamenting for the other side.

“The motion brought forward is something that the Liberals have brought forward hoping to embarrass the government and to try to cause damage to the government, and this is nothing new,” Mr. Lukiwski. “I do not begrudge the Liberals the fact that they are bringing a motion forward that they think can gain them some political favour; that is what happens in this place. However, I find it unfortunate that we are doing so at their first opportunity in this new session of Parliament, when there are so many other important issues to debate.”

He noted the “absolute delicious irony” of the Liberals putting forward this proposal.

“What they want to discuss is the fact that there was a $90,000 cheque paid inappropriately, I admit, but paid back to the taxpayers of Canada to try to stem the abuse made by one of our senators,” Mr. Lukiwski said. “We can contrast that to the Liberal Party’s track record. It is the party that perpetrated and embodied the largest political scandal in Canadian history. I speak, of course, of the sponsorship scandal in which millions of dollars was stolen from Canadian taxpayers, and that money was then diverted into Liberal bank accounts.”

It is to Jean Chretien’s eternal shame that he never hired a chief of staff of sufficient wealth to cover whatever outstanding millions were left from the sponsorship scandal.

After awhile more of heaping scorn and disappointment on the Liberal party, Mr. Lukiwski acknowledged that it was the practice of the House that those rising to speak should direct their comments toward the matter at hand.

“There have been many attempts to try and torque an issue beyond any sense of normalcy. Therefore, let us examine what it is we know. Let us deal with the facts as we know them, those which have been confirmed,” he graciously offered.

He proceeded to make it through three complete sentences before saying something around which there is some dispute.

“First, we know that there was an inappropriate payment by Nigel Wright of $90,000 to cover the inappropriate expenses claimed by Senator Mike Duffy. That is indisputable. That is agreed upon by everyone, including Mr. Wright.”

So far, so good.

“Second, we know that Mr. Wright acted alone…”

Do we?

“… which has been confirmed by Mr. Wright and the Prime Minister.”

Possibly Mr. Wright has taken responsibility for the ultimate decision to provide Mr. Duffy with $90,000. But it is Mr. Wright’s claim, made to the RCMP and made public after an application for a production order was unsealed, that three other individuals under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office and one senator were aware that Mr. Wright would be providing Mr. Duffy with funds to cover the latter’s disputed expenses. (It was, in June, the Prime Minister’s assurance to the House that Mr. Wright’s decision had not been communicated to any member of the Prime Minister’s Office, an assurance Mr. Harper now says was based on the information he had at the time, a plea that unfortunately only raises more questions.)

It is also basically agreed that the Conservative party agreed to cover $13,650 in legal fees for Mr. Duffy. It is the Prime Minister’s Office’s assurance that the Conservative party “was assured the invoice was for valid legal fees related to the audit process.” But the invoice has yet been made public. And Mr. Duffy has claimed that lawyers were involved in drafting a written agreement between him and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Meanwhile, the RCMP is (or at least was) under the impression that the Conservative party was briefly willing to cover Mr. Duffy’s expenses, a version of events that Senator Irving Gerstein now denies.

“On February 13, he had a conversation with Senator Duffy and he told him that he must repay his own expenses,” the parliamentary secretary said of the Prime Minister. “To the best of the Prime Minister’s knowledge, that is exactly what happened. Senator Duffy himself went on national television and said he had repaid it and that he had taken a mortgage on his house to repay the money. We know that this was a lie.”

Sure, but then it is Mr. Duffy’s testimony that it was the Prime Minister’s Office which coached him to tell that story.

“The facts are simply this. Mr. Wright acted inappropriately. He made a decision on his own. The Prime Minister was simply unaware of it until May 15, when he heard media reports. As soon as the Prime Minister was aware of what had transpired, he went public to confirm it,” Mr. Lukiwski summarized. “Is this a cover-up? Clearly not.”

Well, it was previously a cover-up. But, sure. If this is still a cover-up, it’s unquestionably a rather terribly executed one.

“How can he cover something up when he admits that a transgression had been made and that improper payments had been made?” Mr. Lukiwski begged. “It simply does not make sense. ”

Mr. Lukiwski proceeded then to lament that the opposition side was fussing ridiculously over unimportant discrepancies—whether Mr. Wright had resigned or been dismissed, for instance—and then he returned to the facts that are apparently “very clear.”

“Number 1, a $90,000 cheque was given by Nigel Wright to cover the improper expenses claimed and received by Senator Duffy. Number 2, the Prime Minister was not aware of this plan to use Nigel Wright’s personal resources to repay the money. Number 3, both Nigel Wright and the Prime Minister agreed that it was inappropriate that he continue to work in the Prime Minister’s Office, that it was appropriate that he be sanctioned, and sanctioned he was.”


So that is that. And there is now merely everything else that remains to be clarified. Was there a written agreement between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright? Was Mr. Duffy told to not cooperate with Deloitte’s audit? Is there a paper trail? If so, why didn’t Access to Information requests reveal it? Was Mr. Duffy coached on a cover story? Was he threatened with expulsion from the Senate?

“Was the original plan from the PMO to have the Conservative Party pay off Mike Duffy’s expenses when the bill was just $32,000, yes or no?” Thomas Mulcair had asked this afternoon during Question Period.

“Mr. Speaker, if the Prime Minister’s chief fundraiser knew about the scheme and kept it a secret, why is he still the Prime Minister’s chief fundraiser?” Justin Trudeau asked. “If Nigel Wright deceived the Prime Minister, so did Senator Gerstein. Why is he still on the public payroll? Why is he still a senator?”

“Nigel Wright says that Irving Gerstein knew about the $90,000. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that others knew as well. If this story is true, and since these people all knew and allowed him to make false statements in Parliament and since all of these people participated in what the Prime Minister calls a deception against him, then why have none of these people been fired?” Mr. Mulcair asked.

At one point, the NDP leader named one of Mr. Harper’s press secretaries and wondered if that particular individual had been responsible for Mr. Duffy’s cover story. The Prime Minister was unimpressed.

“Mr. Speaker, once again, the Leader of the Opposition is now just throwing out names and making allegations against individuals without even the slightest piece of evidence. He has no inclination that is true at all,” Mr. Harper protested. “We know whose actions are in question here. Mr. Wright has accepted responsibility for his actions. He has accepted the penalties for that and is under investigation. Mr. Duffy and the senators who, quite frankly, abused the public trust by taking money when they should not have taken it are the ones who should be dealt with most severely, and that is what we expect the Senate to do.”


So that is that, the three senators have been suspended, and there are now merely police investigations to complete.

Until then, and maybe even regardless of whether laws were broken, it is perhaps to consider what the few agreed-upon facts and the dozen unanswered questions amount to.

About 10 minutes after Mr. Lukiwski had finished, the Speaker called on the honourable member for Edmonton-St. Albert and Brent Rathgeber stood tall and earnest in his spot in the back corner, the Ghost of Conservative Past come to assist in the judgment of the present.

For the sake of those just tuning in, he reminded the House that he was elected as a Conservative. Since departing the Conservative caucus, he explained, he had taken the position that he would consider each proposal put before the House on its merits and on the question of whether it would be of benefit to his constituents.

“When I look at the opposition motion that we are debating here this afternoon, it is with some reluctance that I have come to the conclusion that I have to support this motion,” Mr. Rathgeber explained, “and I am reluctant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it has come to this, the Liberal opposition having to use one of its opposition days to raise a motion to compel the Prime Minister of Canada to appear before the access to information, privacy and ethics committee to testify under oath as to what he did or did not know concerning what is consuming the Canadian public as the Wright-Duffy scandal.”

And then a rather profound sentence.

“It is sad that it has come to this point,” Mr. Rathgeber said, “because I believe in responsible government.”

Is that what this is all about?

“In the British parliamentary system, the government is responsible to Canadian citizens through this elected chamber,” Mr. Rathgeber reviewed. “Canadians elect parliamentarians, 308 of us currently and there will be a few more after the next election, and our job is to hold the government to account. Had the government been more forthcoming with respect to what it knew and did not know, I do not believe this motion would be necessary. The fact that it is necessary I find very regrettable.”

And so we return to the first principle. And while Mr. Lukiwski laments that we might be talking about more important things, Mr. Rathgeber suggests this goes to our very nature as a functioning democracy.

Mr. Rathgeber reviewed the competing claims and accusations and the situations in both the House and Senate. He raised the possibility that the Criminal Code or the Parliament of Canada Act had been breached. He recalled Joseph Howe and the birth of responsible government in Canada, a birth, he noted, the predates the country. He explained the basic concept, that the executive is responsible to the legislature. The former government backbencher acknowledged that he believes the Prime Minister has told the truth about what he did not know. But that, he ventured, was not enough.

“It is incumbent upon the Prime Minister to answer not only for what he knew or did not know,” Mr. Rathgeber explained, “but also to answer for the operation of the department that bears his name. He is the PM in the PMO, the Prime Minister’s Office.”

And here now was a “systemic breakdown,” in which some number of individuals within that office were able to carry on without the knowledge of the Prime Minister. This, Mr. Rathgeber suggested, was “worthy of examination.”

“The Prime Minister,” the Independent MP suggested, “ought to come forward with some candour with respect to what goes on in his office.”

Here is a relatively novel concept. One which we might need to apply some degree of limitation to, but one which we might now need to explore.

If there is a crisis that now surrounds our politicians—a question that is eternal, but a question that now seems to threaten the life of the profession—it is credibility. And so maybe that is now what this is about—Responsible Government and what we expect of our Parliament at moments such as this.

“I believe in this Prime Minister, but I would think that he would want the opportunity to salvage his reputation and that of his government by appearing before a committee, since the Conservatives do not seem to be inclined to do it in the House of Commons during Question Period,” Mr. Rathgeber offered, damning with earnestness.

“It would be an opportunity for the government to come clean and for the Prime Minister to restore the integrity of his office. I think it is important that the Prime Minister do so because the integrity of the Prime Minister is fundamental to Canadians’ belief in their government.”

So it is about whatever all actually happened and whatever that all amounted to. And then maybe not only is it about what there is to know, but also how much we should expect to know about it—how much we should expect to be entitled to know.

It is about a housing allowance. And then whether it has become the most meaningful housing allowance ever claimed in the history of this dominion.

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