OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to recast himself in the role of stern disciplinarian in the Senate expense narrative, telling a Halifax radio station he "dismissed" his chief of staff for writing a $90,000 cheque to Sen. Mike Duffy.
Last spring when word of the secret payment first surfaced, Harper initially praised Nigel Wright, before appearing to regretfully accept his top lieutenant's resignation several days later.
"I accept that Nigel believed he was acting in the public interest, but I understand the decision he has taken to resign," the prime minister said last May 19.
Harper is now striking a new tone.
"Look, I think the responsibility whenever things go wrong is for us to take appropriate action," Harper told radio station News 95.7 Halifax in an interview aired Monday morning.
"As you know, I had a chief of staff who made an inappropriate payment to Mr. Duffy. He was dismissed."
At issue is an alleged coverup in which the Prime Minister's Office paid off Duffy so that he could repay disputed expenses, in return for which a Conservative-dominated Senate audit committee would whitewash Duffy's behaviour and make the scandal disappear.
The expense questions were first a matter dismissed by government as a media smear, then a political problem to be quietly managed away.
The latest change in tenor began last week after Harper and his office faced a full-on broadside from Duffy and fellow Harper appointees Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, who are also mired in their own expenses controversies.
The Senate Conservative majority is pushing to suspend, without pay, all three of their former caucus mates. That threat has brought the Conservative fight into the open.
The prime minister has been extremely reluctant to respond to the Senate imbroglio, more often than not allowing his House of Commons subordinates to parry opposition questions on the matter.
But Harper went on offence last week after Duffy's incendiary address in the Senate chamber, in which he described a meeting between himself, Harper and Wright — "just the three of us'' — to discuss expense repayment.
"Darn right I told him he should repay his expenses," the prime minister responded the next day in the Commons.
Harper has also come out four-square behind the Senate suspension motions, which were sprung after Parliament returned on Oct. 16 following an extended summer recess.
The prime minister even makes the argument that the long delay in getting to the bottom of the affair — a delay that has included government stonewalling, continually changing stories and even Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament for a month this fall — is reason for swift movement now.
"When you have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in inappropriate expenses and it's taken a year to get to the bottom of this, I think people expect action," Harper told interviewer Jordi Morgan.
The interview was one of three the prime minister recorded Friday with selected radio stations in Toronto, Saskatoon and Halifax. All followed similar formats, with Harper being asked about a European trade deal, the government's throne speech and the troubled Senate.
Morgan, a former candidate and Harper staffer, said the Prime Minister's Office imposed unspecified "conditions" on the terms of the interview.
Some senators have said Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau deserve a full hearing and due process; there are indications that the Senate leadership may move this week to soften the motions.
An RCMP investigation continues into the behaviour of the senators and of Wright. No charges have been laid.
Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau all maintain they did not knowingly fudge their expenses and believed they were following the rules.
But Harper now says it is "crystal clear" that there was a misappropriation of public funds.
"There has been a view in the Senate, a long historic view, and there's a few people who still believe it, even in our party, that the only standard for sitting in the Senate is that you've not been convicted of a crime," he said.
"I'm sorry, that is just not good enough."
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, question period, Feb. 13
"In terms of Sen. Wallin, I have looked at the numbers. Her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian travelling from that particular area of the country over that period of time. For instance, last year Sen. Wallin spent almost half of her time in the province she represents in the Senate. The costs are to travel to and from that province, as any similar parliamentarian would do."
Wallin speaking Wednesday in her own defence
"By throwing a member of this Senate under the bus, finding her guilty without a fair hearing such as any other Canadian could expect — a right guaranteed us by the charter — to proceed without the evidence having been adduced and considered on which the charge in the motion is based, is a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy and makes a mockery of this chamber. This charade is supposedly about preserving the reputation of this place, but the real intent is to remove a perceived liability — namely, me."
Harper on Wallin's expenses, question period, Feb. 14
"The senator and all other senators and members of the House are fully prepared and committed to have an examination of expenses to ensure that they are appropriate. That is the commitment the government has made in both chambers, a commitment we will keep."
Harper in question period on May 28 on when he learned that former chief of staff Nigel Wright personally wrote a $90,000 cheque to cover Sen. Mike Duffy's expenses
"Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear on this question. This matter came to my attention two weeks ago, after speculation appeared in the media. On Wednesday, May 15, I was told about it. At that very moment, I demanded that my office ensure that the public was informed, and it was informed appropriately."
Duffy in the Senate on Oct. 22
"I made one last effort. I said: 'I don't believe I owe anything, and besides which, I don't have $90,000.' 'Don't worry,' Nigel said. 'I'll write the cheque.'"
Harper in question period, May 28
"As I have said repeatedly, my first knowledge of this was on the date and at the time indicated. Prior to that point in time, it was my understanding that Mr. Duffy had paid back his own expenses."
Harper in question period, May 28
"If the leader of the NDP is suggesting I had any information to the contrary from Mr. Wright prior to this, that is completely false. I learned of this on May 15 and immediately made this information public, as I have said many times."
Harper in question period, June 4
"Mr. Speaker, that information was already made public on Feb. 13, and I have been very clear about this. Mr. Duffy approached me after a caucus meeting to discuss this matter. From the beginning, my position has been clear: any inappropriate expenses should be refunded to taxpayers by the senators concerned."
Duffy in his Oct. 22 Senate speech
"I've violated no laws, I've followed the rules."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in question period June 4
"Mr. Speaker, why then did the Prime Minister, last week, deny instructing any members of his personnel to settle the Mike Duffy matter when he gave that order with that personnel present in the room at a caucus meeting in February of this year?"
Harper, in reply to Mulcair in question period June 4
"Mr. Speaker, it was my view from the beginning that any inappropriate expenses by any senator should be repaid by the senator, not by somebody else. That was very clear. Those are the facts obviously before us. As I say, my statements on this matter have been very clear and very consistent."
Harper in question period June 5 explaining his meeting with Duffy
"Mr. Duffy was seeking clarification on remarks I had made to this effect in caucus and I was adamant that any inappropriate expenses had to be reimbursed by him."
Duffy in the Senate Oct. 22
"So after caucus on Feb. 13 of this year, I met the prime minister and Nigel Wright, just the three of us. I said that despite the smear in the papers, I had not broken the rules, but the prime minister wasn't interested in explanations or the truth. It's not about what you did; it's about the perception of what you did that has been created in the media."
Harper in question period Oct. 23, referring to Duffy's account of the Feb. 13 meeting
"No, Mr. Speaker I absolutely did not say that."
Duffy to the Senate on Oct. 22
"I argued: I'm just following the rules like all of the others. But it didn't work. I was ordered by the prime minister: Pay the money back, end of discussion. Nigel Wright was present throughout, just the three of us."
Harper in question period on June 5
"I have made it very clear what my views were to all my staff and to our caucus. We expect inappropriate expenses to be reimbursed and I would expect they would be reimbursed by the person who incurred them. I would certainly not expect them to be reimbursed by somebody else."
Harper in question period on June 5
"Mr. Speaker, as I have indicated, Mr. Wright informed me of his personal cheque on May 15. This was an error in judgment. He indicated he did this because he believed that taxpayers should be reimbursed and he was prepared to ensure that happened, as in fact it did happen. However, obviously this was an error in judgment for many reasons that have already been outlined and for that reason, I accepted his resignation."
Harper at a news conference on July 6 in Calgary
"I think if you read the affidavit it makes very clear that the decision to pay money to Mr. Duffy out of Mr Wright’s personal funds was made solely by Mr. Wright and was his responsibility. Obviously, had I known about this earlier I would never have allowed this to take place. When I answered questions about this in the House of Commons I answered questions to the best of my knowledge."