OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will get little reprieve from the Senate expenses scandal now that a new session of Parliament has been launched.
New Democrats have come up with a procedural ploy aimed at putting the scandal back on the front burner now that the pomp of Wednesday's throne speech is out of the way.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus intends to raise a point of privilege first thing Thursday, asking Speaker Andrew Scheer to find that Harper misled the Commons last spring when he insisted no one in his office knew that his chief of staff had bailed out Sen. Mike Duffy — an assurance contradicted over the summer by the RCMP.
Nigel Wright gave Duffy $90,000 so that he could reimburse the Senate for wrongly claimed housing allowances and living expenses.
Wright resigned as Harper's chief of staff in May, shortly after news of the transaction leaked out.
Harper assured the Commons repeatedly that Wright acted on his own and that neither he nor anyone else in his office knew anything about the deal with Duffy.
"As I have said repeatedly, it was Mr. Wright who made the decision to take his personal funds and give those to Mr. Duffy so that Mr. Duffy could reimburse the taxpayers," Harper told the Commons on June 5.
"Those were his decisions. They were not communicated to me or to members of my office."
However, an affidavit filed in court in July by the RCMP, which is investigating the scandal, subsequently revealed that at least three other people in the Prime Minister's Office knew about the deal.
Wright informed the Mounties that he'd told his assistant, David van Hemmen, as well as Harper's legal adviser, Benjamin Perrin, and Chris Woodcock, the PMO's director of issues management.
Sen. Irving Gerstein, who controls the Conservative party's purse strings, was also in the loop, according to the RCMP document.
Perrin, who no longer works in the PMO, has said he "was not consulted on, and did not participate in" the Wright-Duffy transaction.
The RCMP is also investigating two other former Conservative senators and one former Liberal senator for making potentially fraudulent living and travel expense claims: Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb.
The NDP had hoped to raise the point of privilege immediately following the throne speech on Wednesday, ensuring virtually no reprieve for Harper from the scandal. However, the lengthy speech and the accompanying pomp went longer than expected and there was no time for Angus to make his point before the Commons rose for the day.
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen questioned whether the government deliberately sauntered through the ceremony in order to run out the clock.
Harper will not be in the Commons on Thursday as he heads to Brussels to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called his hastily arranged absence immediately after the throne speech "unprecedented."
Nevertheless, the point of privilege is intended to put the focus of the Senate scandal back on Harper.
"You don't get away with just saying one thing that's the opposite of the truth in the House of Commons and expect to have no consequences," Mulcair said following a caucus meeting prior to the throne speech.
"There are legal, technical, procedural and honour consequences here in the House of Commons for Stephen Harper for having done that. And we're calling him to account."
Mulcair noted that Harper attended only five question periods in the final five weeks of the spring parliamentary sitting, took the summer off and gave himself an extra month by delaying the resumption of Parliament, which had been originally scheduled to return in mid-September.
"Well, he can run but he can't hide."
The NDP is also balking at the government's attempt to pick up legislation where it left off in the last session of Parliament, which requires the consent of opposition parties.
Cullen said the government wants opposition parties to give it a blank cheque to restore any bill it chooses, as well as to restore special Commons committee studies into MP expenses and missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Cullen called the all-or-nothing offer an abuse of power and said the NDP is insisting that each bill and committee study be dealt with individually.
Harper chose to prorogue Parliament, effectively killing all legislation on the order paper, in a bid to avoid scrutiny and change the channel on the Senate scandal but now wants to "reset the clock without any penalty at all," Cullen said.
"Beyond not making any sense, it rewards bad behaviour," he said.