The House of Commons became a court room on Tuesday, May 28.
Opposition and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair carefully and precisely questioned Prime Minister Harper on the Senate scandals (there are, in fact, more than one).
Mulcair eschewed the usual rhetoric. He did not preface his questions with florid denunciations.
He asked simple, open-ended questions to which there should be equally simple and clear answers.
The answers had the appearance of clarity, and for the most part Harper steered clear of the usual Conservative tactic of attacking when attacked.
However, he did not always candidly answer the questions.
The House is not actually a courtroom and the Speaker not a judge. The Speaker upholds the rules of order; he cannot oblige an MP to answer a question.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau played a strong supporting role to the leader of the Official Opposition, although he did resort to somewhat more rhetoric than Mulcair.
It was, in a way, a Question Period for the ages. This writer cannot remember anything quite like it in nearly four decades of watching Parliament, on and off.
Here’s how some of it went.
First, Mulcair wanted to know when, precisely, the Prime Minister found out about the Nigel Wright $90,000 payment to Senator Mike Duffy.
Mulcair: On what date and at what time was the Prime Minister informed that Nigel Wright had made a payment to Conservative Senator Mike Duffy?
The Prime Minister actually answered.
Harper: 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 they were informed appropriately.
The NDP leader then pressed the Prime Minister on that point, wanting to know when Harper first spoke with Wright about the issue of Duffy’s expenses.
Mulcair: When did the Prime Minister first speak with Nigel Wright about Mike Duffy’s expenses?
Here Harper dissimulated.
Harper: 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.
Mulcair would not accept that evasive answer.
Mulcair: The question was, when did the Prime Minister first speak with Nigel Wright about Mike Duffy’s expenses, and how many times did he speak with Nigel Wright in the week preceding his resignation?
But the Prime Minister stuck to his story.
Harper: If the leader of the NDP is suggesting that 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.
A little later Mulcair pointed out the Prime Minister’s changing attitude toward the $90,000 payment.
At first, Harper, and other Conservatives such as MP Pierre Poilievre, took the view that Nigel Wright was something of a great patriot for sparing the taxpayers a $90,000 bill. They did not seem to grasp that Wright and Duffy had contravened Parliamentary rules and may have even broken the law.
Mulcair: What changed between the time that the Prime Minister expressed his total, absolute support of Nigel Wright, and the moment that he accepted his resignation just three days later? What changed?
The Prime Minister utterly ducked this question, which is a crucial one, and undermines his assertion that he knew nothing whatsoever about any of all this until May 15. The Prime Minister did not even pretend to answer Mulcair’s question.
Harper: Mr. Wright accepted full responsibility for his error in this matter. He offered his resignation and I accepted that resignation. As we know, he will be subject to an examination by the Ethics Commissioner, and that is the accountability mechanism that we have put in place for these kinds of things.
A little later on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau returned to this issue.
Trudeau: Let us get this straight. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Office denies any problem with the payment. On Wednesday, it is an honourable act. On Friday, Nigel Wright still has the complete confidence of the Prime Minister. Sunday morning, he resigns but cabinet ministers run around calling him “a great Canadian.” If the Prime Minister learned about the $90,000 payment at the same time as the rest of us, why did it take him a week to relieve his chief of staff of his responsibilities?
Harper: Mr. Speaker, by his own admission, Mr. Wright made a very serious error. For that, he has accepted full, sole responsibility. He has agreed to resign. He is subject to an investigation and examination by the Ethics Commissioner, on which I anticipate he will be fully co-operative.
Trudeau: Mr. Speaker, this is what the Prime Minister would have Canadians believe. The chief of staff walks into the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday morning, looks him in the eye and said that unbeknownst to him he had secretly paid a sitting legislator $90,000 to obstruct an audit. If that were true, the Prime Minister should have fired Nigel Wright on the spot. Instead, he spent five days defending him and calling him “honourable.” Has the Prime Minister grown so out of touch that he actually expects Canadians to believe this story?
The Prime Minister looked a bit rattled, but did not rise to the bait. He stuck to his script.
Harper: The facts here are reasonably simple whether or not the opposition or anybody else particularly likes them. The facts are simple and they are clear. It was the belief of Mr. Wright, in fact I think it is fair to say the belief of all of us, that Mr. Duffy should repay any inappropriate expenses. Mr. Wright ultimately decided, on his own, using his own resources, to assist Mr. Duffy in that repayment, a matter he kept to himself until Wednesday, May 15.
At one point Harper did give an unequivocal answer, and that was when Mulcair asked about any communications he might have had with his former Press Secretary and now Senator Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, who is one of two Conservatives on the steering committee of the Senate Internal Economy Committee.
Mulcair: Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen is [the Prime Minister’s] former press secretary. Did he or did he not ever have any conversations with his former press secretary, Carolyn Stewart Olsen, concerning this affair in the Senate?
Harper: As a matter of fact, Mr. Speaker, no, I did not …
However, when Mulcair asked repeatedly if the Prime Minister ever discussed this affair in Cabinet, Harper flat-out refused to answer.
Mulcair: Did the Prime Minister ever discuss this matter in cabinet?
Harper: The Senate committee has been very clear. It made its own report on these matters. The government’s position is also extremely well known. When people claim expenditures that they never actually incurred, these are inappropriate and must be repaid to the taxpayers.
Mulcair: That was a very straightforward and simple question. Did he ever discuss this matter in cabinet?
Harper: The Senate committee report is a Senate committee report. It is not a matter of government or cabinet business. That is plainly obvious.
As for what sort of agreement may have existed between Duffy and Wright — some kind of quid pro quo in exchange for the $90,000 — Harper again said there was nothing to see here.
Mulcair: Who in the Prime Minister’s Office spoke with Mr. Duffy about withholding information from auditors or others investigating this matter?
Harper: I have no information to that effect. Obviously, as I have said repeatedly, the arrangements between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright are a matter of inquiry of both Ethics Commissioners of both Houses of this Parliament and we will provide any support necessary in those examinations.
But the NDP leader persisted, raising the fact that Duffy himself said he decided to keep quiet and cease cooperating with the Deloitte and Touche investigation on orders from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Mulcair: Mike Duffy wrote in an email that after being paid $90,000, he “stayed silent on the orders of the Prime Minister’s Office.” Who told Mike Duffy to remain silent?
The Conservative leader here seemed to invoke the right to plausible deniability, for those who remember the 1970s Watergate affair in the United States.
Harper: These are not matters that I am privy to. This is an email from Mike Duffy, who is no longer a member of our caucus and certainly never conveyed that information to me.
Needless to say, many questions remain.