The scandal surrounding the Prime Minister is not about the Senate

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Stephen Harper is not fit to be prime minister of Canada. His performance speaking to the Conservative Party of Canada convention last Friday in Calgary revealed flaws of character, temperament and personality that would disqualify him from occupying a leadership position in any public institution, let alone the highest office in the land.

Dividing the country into "us" and "them," his speech was designed to shore up support from people in the room, not address Canada as a whole.

The Prime Minister denigrated the contribution to Canadian life of public sector workers, academics, the media and the judiciary.

The "faux populist" focus was on agenda items from the Reform Party era, abolishing the long-gun registry, killing the Wheat Board, punishing criminals, protecting victims of crime, reducing the GST, and foregoing support for child care.

The approach was that of a party leader warning off prospective rivals. Stephen Harper is prepared to fight to keep his job, that much is sure. How effective his display of arrogance will prove in the face of serious doubts about his conduct in office remains to be seen.

Asked direct questions in the House of Commons about the role he played when payments were made to Senator Mike Duffy by Nigel Wright (then chief-of-staff to the PM) Stephen Harper has not provided coherent or consistent answers. What is inaccurately called the Senate expenses scandal is first about the accountability of the Prime Minister to the House of Commons, and second about the conduct of his political operatives regrouped in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Initially, Harper said Wright acted alone. Later, Harper spoke of a few other people being involved.

The claim made by Harper not to have been involved was blown away by Duffy's account of a meeting -- with Wright present -- where Harper had ordered Duffy to reimburse the Senate for housing expenses.

Duffy also revealed the Conservative party lawyer paid the legal expenses for the transaction Wright supposedly handled alone.

When addressing the Calgary convention, CPC Senator and Conservative fundraiser Irving Gerstein announced he had forbidden Nigel Wright access to Conservative party funds to reimburse Duffy's Senate expenses, but agreed to pay Duffy's legal bills with CPC money.

When a cabinet minister is deemed to have misled the House, the minister is expected to resign. By giving conflicting accounts of his actions, the Prime Minister has been misleading the House of Commons -- and therefore the Canadian public -- not a small matter, easily dismissed.

Members of the House of Commons enjoy parliamentary privileges not granted to regular citizens. Based on traditions dating back to the British House of Commons, elected members may speak out about laws and statutes, and vote on legislation without fear of recrimination or recourse by persons or bodies that may be affected by actions taken by sitting members of Parliament.

Parliamentary privilege means statements made in the House of Commons receive protection from the courts. Importantly, there is a corresponding responsibility for members to speak plainly about matters before the House of Commons or find themselves in contempt of Parliament. Such a charge -- making false and misleading statements -- has been levelled at Harper by the NDP.

An MP can be found in contempt of Parliament by a formal vote of the majority of the House, an unlikely destiny for a member seated with the governing majority, let alone the prime minister.  

In the event a member makes what turns out to be an incorrect statement, parliamentary tradition and procedure allow for the member to make a statement to correct the record. In a heated, partisan atmosphere, withdrawing a misleading statement offers an honourable way out of a tough corner.

The PM has seen no need to address the question of his own responsibility in the payment of money to Senator Duffy, not in the House of Commons, nor when addressing delegates to his party convention in Calgary.

An RCMP inquiry into the Nigel Wright payments to Duffy is under way. If judged to be an attempt to influence a parliamentarian, such payments would constitute a criminal offence. Should Nigel Wright face charges, he would of course be required to testify under oath. The Prime Minister could well be called to testify as a material witness as well.

One way or another, except for a fortunate few, a political career ends in the court of public opinion. Running afoul of the law short-circuits the political process, as Stephen Harper may well find out if Nigel Wright is called to testify in court.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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