CALGARY — Stephen Harper’s troops are lining up firmly behind him.
The Prime Minister may not have provided any answers or shown any remorse about a Senate scandal that has his party sinking in the polls, but his caucus and delegates at the biennial Conservative convention say he didn't need to.
Harper delivered a rallying speech Friday at the BMO Convention Centre in Calgary. In it, he mocked his opposition, praised the government’s economic record and said senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau had to go.
But he showed zero contrition about an affair that continues to dominate question period and overshadowed much of the party's convention.
“The Senate should do the right thing now and suspend those senators without pay!” Harper told a crowd of 3,000, according to estimates from Conservative party officials.
“Canadians expect, I expect, that people be held accountable,” he said.
The three senators that Harper appointed to the upper chamber are alleged to have spent tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers money — $140,000 in Wallin's case — in ineligible expense claims.
Ontario MP Bernard Trottier told reporters Saturday there was no need for the prime minister to apologize. Harper “is a man who is very ethical, so we need to punish the people who deliberately cheated with their spending,” Trottier said.
“If there were errors maybe it was in the hiring (of) people like Nigel Wright,” he said. “Men who have a good character but made errors, and we find that in all organizations.”
Wright is Harper’s former chief of staff and the man who wrote Duffy, a sitting legislator, a $90,000 cheque to cover his secondary housing expenses.
“I don’t know what else the prime minister can say," Treasury Board President Tony Clement said. "He’s been very clear that he expects certain standards of propriety from all parliamentarians and if those are violated, he expects there to be sanctions. I think that’s what the Canadian people expect, and that’s what the Conservative Party of Canada expects.”
“Why should it be his fault?” Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel said when asked if the prime minister should take responsibility. “If there are some senators who don’t know where they live, that’s the prime minister’s fault?”
Lebel walked away when asked about Nigel Wright.
Senator Claude Carignan, the government’s leader in the Senate who led the charge to suspend Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau without pay but toyed with the idea of offering them leniency before being rebuked by the PMO , said he was “completely” in agreement with Harper.
“The senators had to be suspended without pay and that we needed to take our responsibilities. The message is clear,” he said.
The prime minister didn’t need to tell the party or the country he was sorry, Carignan added.
“The only prime minister who appointed senators who are in prison right now is Jean Chrétien,” Carignan said, referencing the six-month jail term Liberal Senator Raymond Lavigne received after he was convicted of fraud.
“And I’ve never heard him say he’s sorry.”
In his speech Friday, Harper blamed the courts for holding up his Senate reform plans. He blamed Liberal senators for preventing the suspension of his misbehaving senators. And he blamed his opponents for casting him as nasty and ruthless for wanting to take decisive action on Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau by booting them from office.
Liberal MP Joyce Murray told The Huffington Post Canada Harper should have cleared the air and taken personal responsibility for what happened on his watch.
“It was widely expected that he wouldn’t, and he didn’t. In fact, he ended his speech by saying I don’t care what other people think. It’s classic Stephen Harper,” she said.
It’s not in Harper’s DNA to show regret, said NDP MP Nathan Cullen. “Never having to say you’re sorry and never having to admit you’re wrong seems to be who Stephen Harper is,” he told HuffPost.
“A small amount of humility, contrition would be a great investment in gaining back some of the lost ground on credibility,” Cullen said. He added that if faced with a similar situation, he would have been open with his members.
The opposition may have wanted to see the prime minister in a weakened position in front of his base, but his supporters certainly didn’t.
In an interview, Ontario delegate Carol Stuart said Harper did what he had to do considering the circumstances.
“I think he confronted the problem,” she said. “Everyone knows he hired them, but he had the guts to come out and say this is wrong, there is a problem here and we have to fix it… And if I can’t fix it, they are going to have to fix it themselves."
The Senate scandal has thrown some dirt and “unfortunately tarnished” the party, said B.C. delegate Steven Austin. But the senators are to blame for their situation, not the prime minister, he said.
“This scandal has no direct effect on the vast majority of Canadians, except maybe those living in the national capital region,” Austin said.
Saskatchewan delegate Daniel Caswell told HuffPost the prime minister’s speech was better than he expected.
“I think he did a good job of outlining the successes of the Conservative party and I think with the whole Senate thing, he did a good job of drawing a line in the sand,” Caswell said.
Caswell wasn’t looking for Harper to take responsibility, he said. “This speech was about getting people excited about what the party has done… The base needed to be reminded of the successes we have had. I think that’s really what was good about it.”
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