OTTAWA — Criminal trial, meet campaign trail.
The long-running Mike Duffy saga pulled focus from the federal election Wednesday as Nigel Wright — Stephen Harper's former chief of staff and the beleaguered senator's $90,000 man — finally told his side of the story.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it dovetailed with what the prime minister has been saying for years: that Harper was never aware of a plan for either the Conservative party or Wright himself to pay back Duffy's impugned expense claims.
"Mr. Duffy came to me, and I said to him that his expenses, in my judgment, could not be justified," Harper told a news conference at a campaign event in Vancouver as Wright was testifying in an Ottawa courtroom.
"You cannot justify claiming expenses you did not actually incur, regardless of what the rules were. That just can't be justified. I felt he should pay them back."
Harper said it was always his understanding that Duffy would repay the expenses himself.
"That's what we were told was going to happen," he said.
"When I found out that is not what happened, that in fact they'd been repaid by somebody else, we made that information public and I took the appropriate action."
Harper did not clarify what has long been a murky area in the Duffy affair: whether or not Wright's departure from the Prime Minister's Office was voluntary. He also continued to take credit for making the scheme public when in fact it was a CTV News report that first disclosed Wright's $90,000 payment.
The New Democrats wasted no time taking full advantage of the scandal's explosive return to prominence Wednesday.
"Nigel Wright may be on the witness stand, but it's Stephen Harper who is on trial," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said during a campaign event in Levis, Que.
"Mr. Harper has time and again said one thing and its opposite during this whole Duffy-Wright affair. And when you say one thing and its opposite, it's quite obvious that both can't be true."
Wright testified that he did not tell Harper that the Conservative party was planning to repay some $32,000 in expenses in February 2013, nor did he tell him that he made the payment himself when the total soared past $90,000.
The idea was that Duffy would declare publicly that he'd made a mistake in filing his claims and that he'd paid them back — and that no one, not even the prime minister, would ever know where the money actually came from.
In one of a massive sheaf of emails released by the court Wednesday, Wright famously wrote that he was "good to go from the PM" — a reference to agreed-upon "media lines" for Duffy in publicly explaining himself.
"I think it's still too early to say the credibility of what Mr. Wright's telling us," said NDP candidate Charlie Angus, long the party's point man on ethics in the House of Commons.
"If Prime Minister Harper was running a clean government, his chief of staff should have said to Duffy, 'I'm sorry, you're out of here. You ran these bills up, you pay them'."
Angus compared Harper and Wright's version of events to the strict control the Conservative campaign has exerted over its campaign events.
"Here's a guy who won't allow someone to sit in the bleachers at one of his public events without being completely vetted and yet this deal, a $90,000 payout, is concocted in his office by all his closest people and the prime minister didn't know?"
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who was campaigning in Regina, gave a decidedly muted response to the Senate revelations.
"What we see right now is Ottawa is going to be entirely focused on what's coming out of that trial," Trudeau said.
"People are going to be talking about all the things that went wrong with the Harper government. I'm going to be talking about how we fix Canada and how we build a strong economy for the future of Canadians."
That, apparently, means growing the economy not from the "top down," but from the "heart outwards."
Trudeau said putting more money in the pockets of the middle class is the ticket for his party to win more support in Saskatchewan, where the Liberals have only one seat and the Conservatives hold the rest.
"We're proposing a strong and real plan, one that invests in the middle class so that we can grow the economy not from the top down the way Mr. Harper wants to, but from the heart outwards," said Trudeau.
"That's what Canada has always done well with."
The line drew scorn from Trudeau's NDP rivals.
"I don't think you can grow the economy with touchy-feely slogans. I think it takes a solid plan," Mulcair said.
"The NDP has a real solid plan to create jobs and grow the economy. 400,000 manufacturing jobs lost under Stephen Harper. We're not going to get those jobs back with touchy-feely slogans. We're going to get there with a tough plan to create jobs and grow the economy."
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