Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Prime Minister Harper leaves country while Ottawa burns

The Senate under siege
With the press baying at the prime minister, calling for answers to serious questions about a possible deal with a senator accused of fudging expenses, PM Stephen Harper decided to leave Canada and visit South America. Resolute in his own righteousness, Harper refused to allow "distractions" to prevent his government from concentrating on the economy.

Despite an openly rebellious crowd of journalists, who felt they had been unceremoniously brushed aside while raising serious questions about serious issues, Harper refused to address the issue which is tearing his party apart, and consuming Ottawa:

Harper left on a four-day trade mission to South America, just hours after he delivered a televised speech to Tory MPs and senators on Parliament Hill.

Harper said he was “not happy” with the actions of some senators and with the conduct of his own office.

He promised to accelerate Senate reform, “uphold a culture of accountability” and not be sidelined by “distractions” that get in the way of his main priorities, such as job creation.

But the prime minister did not explain — or apologize for — the actions of his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who resigned Sunday over controversy from his decision to secretly give Sen. Mike Duffy a personal $90,000 cheque to repay his ineligible housing expenses.
The Duffy Deal

That left his second-in-command, MP Baird, to rise in Parliament and answer questions about any deal that might have been cut:

One after another in the House of Commons, New Democrat and Liberal MP’s fired off questions to learn more about the secret payment between Wright and Duffy, who resigned from Tory caucus last week.

Among them: Why did Wright decide to do this favor for Duffy? Did the ruling Tories “whitewash” a Senate report on Duffy’s expenses so it would not be critical? What did Harper know about the deal and when did he know it? Is it true that Wright used Harper’s former special counsel and legal adviser, Benjamin Perrin, to draw up a letter of understanding with Duffy in February? Did Wright break the law by giving Duffy the money?

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asked the government to bring in the RCMP to conduct an investigation, while other New Democrats urged the governing Tories to end a “cover-up.”

“Was taxpayers’ money used to bankroll Senategate?” asked Mulcair.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Harper had lost his “moral compass.”
“The prime minister’s right-hand man secretly paid a parliamentarian $90,000 to obstruct an audit,” said Trudeau in the Commons. “Canadians deserve better. They deserve actual transparency and accountability.”

Baird consulted a piece of paper in his hand before carefully avoiding any of the questions by giving the same, carefully crafted non-answer:

Throughout question period, Baird recited the same answer:

“The government is being very clear that the prime minister was not aware of this payment until media reports surfaced last week.”

As well, despite media reports that a written agreement was prepared for the Wright-Duffy deal, Baird said it’s “our understanding there is no document.”

Baird's answer has opened up a chink in the Harper government's stalling tactics. 
What? Me worried?

By carefully stating that it's "our understanding that there is no document" capturing any deal with Senator Duffy, Baird and Harper have chosen to directly contradict reports by CTV that there is an agreement, and moreover, that the agreement was reduced to writing.

Now the focus will shift to whether (1) an unwritten deal was cut (by whom? About what?) and (2) whether there is a draft agreement, outline of principles, list of points, or signed agreement capturing the terms of the donation to the hapless Senator.

With Harper out of the country for four days, we can expect this say-nothing, deny-any-agreement stalling tactic to fray at its seams with unseemly haste.

There are just too many people involved in this sad spectacle for the lid to be kept on for long, and any attempt to clamp the lid shut using the Senate Committee will not wash:

Last week, the Conservative leader in the Senate, Sen. Marjory LeBreton, said the government planned to bring a motion Tuesday night to send Duffy’s audit back to the committee — the same committee that faces allegations of political interference after closing the case on Duffy’s spending.

Expect the PM to return head of his planned time, to take personal control of the explanations.

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