OTTAWA - Stephen Harper insists his decision to prorogue Parliament is "completely normal" procedure for a government that wants to refresh its legislative agenda at the mid-point of its mandate.
But NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accuses the prime minister of "hiding" from opposition parties, afraid to face questions about the burgeoning Senate expenses scandal.
Mulcair noted Tuesday that Harper could have prorogued and relaunched Parliament with a throne speech on Sept. 16, when Parliament was scheduled to resume after a summer break. Instead, the prime minister has chosen to postpone Parliament's return for at least a month, until after Thanksgiving.
As a result, "the people who have been elected and put there to ask questions on your behalf and on behalf of all Canadians won't be able to do it because Mr. Harper has gone into hiding," Mulcair told a news conference in Montreal.
"That's not a way to be a democrat, that's not a way to be the head of state and that's certainly not a way to behave in a democracy."
But Harper, who is currently on a week-long tour of northern Canada, shrugged off the accusation.
"Look, a new throne speech is, as you know, completely normal," he said during a stop in Hay River, N.W.T.
"We have been able to to have adopted virtually all our legislation to this point in Parliament. There's a need to refresh legislation."
Mulcair noted that Harper was absent from the House of Commons for all but five sitting days during the spring sitting, when his government was under intense fire over the Senate expenses scandal.
The delay in Parliament's return means Harper will have spent only five days in five and a half months fielding opposition questions about the ever-worsening affair, he charged.
"He doesn't have the courage to face Parliament and that's the problem with Stephen Harper," Mulcair said.
"He's a bully, he always centralizes power but when the time comes for him to answer for what he's been doing, he runs and hides. That's his repeat behaviour."
Harper's Conservatives may have hoped the Senate scandal would cool down over the summer. If anything, it's gotten worse.
The Senate asked the RCMP last week to investigate the dubious travel expenses of a fourth senator, Pamela Wallin, after an independent audit concluded she had inappropriately claimed $121,348 in travel expenses unrelated to her work as a senator. Another $21,000 in claims are being reviewed by a Senate committee.
The RCMP are already investigating three other senators — Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb — who were deemed in the spring to have inappropriately claimed housing allowances to which they were not entitled.
The Mounties are also looking into the fact that Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, secretly gave Duffy a personal cheque for $90,000 to cover the cost of reimbursing the Senate for his ineligible claims.
Harper personally appointed Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau, who have resigned from the Conservative caucus amid the fallout from the scandal. Harb was a Liberal senator, who has also left his caucus.
Harper distanced himself Tuesday from the entire mess, refusing to acknowledge any personal responsibility for the affair.
"I think the issue here that is relevant is that there are rules and senators are expected to follow those rules. Obviously, there's significant evidence that was not the case and we expect that, we obviously expect that people will be held accountable when rules are not followed."
Prorogation is a standard tool for governments but Harper's use of it has been controversial in the past.
Most contentious was his decision to prorogue in late 2008, when his minority government faced the spectre of being unseated by an opposition coalition.
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