The Senate: chamber of secrets

A bid to suspend three scandal-plagued senators sparks fresh allegations against the Prime Minister

Ean Kilpatrick/CP

Did they think Mike Duffy would go quietly? It seems they did. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative leadership in the Senate tabled a surprise motion to suspend Duffy without pay, along with two other embattled senators, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, they couldn’t have been intentionally inviting a torrent of allegations that threatened to make the Senate expense scandal, already very damaging, much worse for Harper. But that’s exactly what happened when the Senate convened this week to debate suspending the three Harper appointees. Early Tuesday evening, Duffy stood in his spot, along the back row in a far corner of the upper chamber, and proceeded to scorch the earth—or at least to singe the red carpet.

Glasses perched on the end of his nose, fists pumping and left index finger wagging and jabbing, Duffy delivered his remarks like the former TV reporter he is, as if he was going live with the juiciest scoop of his career. He unspooled an indignant tale of how, far from claiming improper Senate housing allowances and expense payments, he was entirely in the right. It was Harper and his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who pressured him into agreeing to pay back money he had collected—never mind how that would make Duffy look. In the most vivid scene Duffy sketched, he described a meeting last February—“just the three of us,” Harper, Wright and Duffy—in which they discussed how to put the expenses controversy to rest. “But the Prime Minister wasn’t interested in explanations or the truth,” he said.

What Harper was interested in, Duffy claimed, was the way the expenses story was hurting the Tories. “It’s not about what you did, it’s about the perception of what you did that’s been created in the media,” Duffy said Harper told him. So the Prime Minister and his top aide, according to Duffy, insisted he pay back the disputed funds. But the senator, who not all that long ago was a top draw at Tory fundraising events, said he just didn’t have the money. “Nigel Wright said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll write the cheque,’ ” Duffy said. The revelation that Wright had done just that led to his resignation from Harper’s staff last May. After that, Harper told the House of Commons that Wright cooked up the deal with Duffy alone.

But Duffy’s bravura turn of Senate oratory raised fresh questions about how many others in the Prime Minister’s Office knew about that arrangement, and how intimately Harper was involved. In a week when Harper desperately tried to draw attention to his trade deal with the European Union, and when his government strove to look busy putting into action the agenda set by the previous week’s Throne Speech, all eyes were on the Senate.


Senators arriving to work on Tuesday afternoon had first to get past a clutch of photographers huddled outside in the October chill around the brass doors that serve as the official entrance to Parliament’s Centre Block for members of the red chamber. Inside, and up the 26 steps that senators must climb to reach the Senate foyer, the press gallery had set up a second gauntlet, nine TV cameras and a noisy pack of reporters, lying in wait on the marble floor, flanked by sandstone pillars and surrounded by the grand portraits of kings and queens. Only after senators were escorted by security guards through the scrum, and once they set foot on the red broadloom that marks their exclusive domain, were they out of earshot of reporters’ questions.

Duffy wasn’t the only Harper patronage appointee whose paid position in Ottawa’s most controversial institution was at stake. “Brazeau!” a reporter called when Patrick Brazeau was spotted arriving. The media couldn’t coax a comment from him. Later, though, he also had his chance to speak in the chamber. Among other things, Brazeau asserted that his decision to claim that his primary residence was outside the National Capital Region, entitling him to a housing allowance, was approved in advance. “I asked the Senate administration if I could claim,” he said. “And I have it in black and white, yes, I could.” It was an audit that found Brazeau, in fact, lived mainly in the capital region that led to him becoming the subject of controversy. (He is also facing assault charges after an unrelated domestic incident.)

Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin, whose travel expense claims have also been deemed illegitimate, all quit the Conservative caucus to sit as Independents as the expense storm engulfed them. But Duffy portrayed himself as having come under intense pressure not only to pay back $90,000 in housing allowances—in the process seeming to admit he had wrongly claimed it in the first place—but also exit the Tory caucus. He described a key telephone conversation with Ray Novak, a long-time, trusted Harper aide who replaced Wright as chief of staff, and Sen. Marjory LeBreton, then Conservative leader in the Senate. “Senator LeBreton was emphatic,” Duffy said. “The deal was off if I didn’t resign from the Conservative caucus within 90 minutes. I’d be thrown out of the caucus immediately. Without a meeting. Without a vote.” Not only that, if Duffy didn’t play ball, LeBreton and Novak threatened, he asserted, to begin the procedure necessary to throw him out of the Senate entirely. (The debate over the motion to suspend the senators was set to continue Wednesday after Maclean’s went to press, with the vote to come at the end.)

Down the corridor from the Senate, in the House of Commons, Harper faced increasingly tough questions about his assertion last June that nobody else in his office knew what Wright was up to. Harper’s parliamentary secretary, MP Paul Calandra, seemed to leave some wiggle room by saying the Prime Minister was answering at the time “with all the information available to him.” “Does the Prime Minister regret any of his actions?” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked just before Duffy’s explosive Tuesday evening speech. “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?” Harper only repeated what have become familiar lines about how his government expects the rules to be followed and those who break them are to be held accountable. He added that the House should attend to “the real priorities of Canadians,” which he said are “jobs, growth and making sure we have opportunity for future generations.”

No doubt if Canadians were asked, they would say those are their priorities. But Harper rose to power in 2006 largely on the strength of his unrelenting attacks on the Liberals over the so-called sponsorship affair, and so he knows as well as anyone how questions of ethical lapses have a way of pushing all other concerns to the sidelines of politics. Duffy’s speech provides plenty of fuel for the Senate expense fire to grow, rather than burn out, in the coming weeks. One possibility: Senate hearings that would call current and former officials from the Prime Minister’s Office to answer questions. Liberal Sen. James Cowan proposed such hearings minutes after Duffy finished his incendiary speech, suggesting it was only appropriate to give Harper staffers a chance to answer Duffy’s “very troubling accusations.” Cowan made it sound only fair, but one imagines the PMO officials might just as soon pass on the opportunity.

AVAILABLE NOW: A Maclean’s ebook on the Senate scandal with profiles of Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, with other stories by John Geddes, Paul Wells, Colby Cosh and more