OTTAWA - The Harper government moved Thursday to cauterize the open wound that is the Senate expenses scandal, coming down hard on three free-spending senators and promising to disclose how its parliamentarians spend taxpayer dollars.
But none of it was likely to make the controversy go away any time soon, given fresh procedural tactics by the opposition, ongoing RCMP probes and a forthcoming Senate expense review by the auditor general.
The Conservatives announced motions to suspend Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, three former Tories appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper who were found to have made inappropriate expense claims.
The motions, to be debated next week, would strip the trio of their pay, benefits and Senate resources for the remainder of the parliamentary session — potentially as long as two years.
A fourth senator with improper expenses, former Liberal Mac Harb, resigned last month.
A handful of Liberal senators suggested the motions were patently unfair, given that Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau have not been charged with anything directly related to their expenses.
Government Senate leader Claude Carignan said the upper chamber was well within its rights to take disciplinary action against the senators for their "gross negligence."
"When we occupy such privileged positions, we should respect citizens and we need to behave with dignity," Carignan said outside the Senate chamber after the motions were introduced.
"I think the behaviour of these three colleagues were an affront to that dignity."
An hour before Carignan's announcement, Duffy issued a statement saying he was going on medical leave on his doctor's orders because of a heart condition. Carignan said that would not have an impact on the suspension, should it pass.
Duffy, Brazeau and Harb are the subject of an RCMP investigation into fraud and breach of trust allegations, but no charges have been laid. Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk said the Mounties had interviewed him this week about Wallin, but it is unclear whether that was part of a full-blown investigation.
Down the hall in the Commons, government whip John Duncan announced that Conservative MPs and senators would be voluntarily disclosing greater details of their expenses, effective immediately.
"We remain willing to work with our colleagues from all parties to develop improved reporting that applies to all parliamentarians, and we believe that all parties should support such measures to improve transparency," Duncan later said in a statement.
"Until such a system is in place, Conservative parliamentarians will be voluntarily reporting their travel and hospitality expenses."
The Liberals began posting their travel and hospitality expenses on Tuesday, a direct response to the Senate scandal.
The twin Tory moves, coming on the first full day of the new parliamentary session, appeared aimed at quelling some of the raging Senate controversy that has engulfed the government for almost a full year.
Conservative senators and MPs have said they heard from Canadians all summer about their displeasure with the scandal, which is expected to be a prominent issue at the party's convention in Calgary later this month.
But opposition parties signalled they won't let up on their relentless attacks on the government's ethics, and criticized the moves as an 11th-hour attempt to change the subject.
"What do you call three senators suspended without pay? A good start," quipped NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who is campaigning for outright abolition of the Senate.
"We'd suspend all of them without pay."
Liberal Senate leader James Cowan noted that he called for sanctions against the errant senators in the spring, but got no traction from the Conservatives. He said Harper bears responsibility for appointing the three to the upper chamber.
"This also doesn't get away from the issue of the Wright-Duffy payment, we have no more answers about that than we had in June, and we have more questions than we had in June," said Cowan.
That $90,000 payment — made by Harper's then-chief of staff Nigel Wright to Duffy in March to repay the senator's living expenses — is still the opposition's main focus in both Houses.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus won the support of other opposition parties Thursday for his bid to have a Commons committee determine whether Harper deliberately misled the Commons over the Senate expenses scandal or was deceived by his own staff.
Angus asked Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to make a preliminary finding that Harper was in contempt of Parliament last spring when he repeatedly insisted no one in his office knew Wright had bailed out Duffy — an assurance since contradicted by the RCMP.
Angus wants the matter referred to the procedure and House affairs committee to find out whether Harper intentionally misled the Commons or whether his staff didn't bother to fill him in on the facts.
Harper was not in the Commons on Thursday, having flown to Brussels to finalize a free trade agreement with the European Union.
Scheer did not immediately rule on Angus's argument that Harper misled the House over the Wright-Duffy transaction.
Government House leader Peter Van Loan insisted Harper personally knew nothing about the Duffy bailout and that whatever he told the Commons was accurate to the best of his knowledge at the time.
Harper assured the Commons repeatedly that Wright acted on his own and did not say anything about the transaction to him or anyone else in his office.
However, an affidavit filed in court in July by the RCMP, which is investigating the scandal, revealed that at least three other people in the Prime Minister's Office knew about the transaction.
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 affidavit.
Angus noted Thursday that Harper was grilled incessantly about the matter in the Commons for weeks yet never changed his assertion that Wright had told no one about the bailout.
"Can any Canadian seriously believe that day after day of being asked to account for what happened in his office, the prime minister never sat down with senior staff to work out the facts of the matter?" Angus told Scheer.
"Either the prime minister's staff lied to him, which left him armed with untrue answers on the highest profile story of the day and an unprecedented political scandal, or the prime minister himself perhaps chose to ignore the truth."
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