Harper counters new Senate questions with trade deal talk

Prime Minister Stephen Harper brushed aside new allegations his office pressured Senator Mike Duffy into accepting a deal on his expense claims in the House of Commons Monday, pointing instead to the trade deal with the EU he signed last week.

Government touts deal with Europe as opposition raises questions on Senate scandal

Prime Minister Stephen Harper brushed aside questions about his office's involvement in the Mike Duffy Senate expense scandal during question period in the House of Commons Monday, pointing instead to his signing last week of a free-trade deal with Europe. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons Monday to face questions over new allegations by Senator Mike Duffy's lawyer.

Donald Bayne told reporters that emails show Duffy's living expenses were approved again and again by the Senate's Conservative leadership until the expense controversy blew up and Duffy was forced by the Prime Minister's Office to accept a deal to repay his expenses.

But Harper offered no new information to address the claims by Bayne that the PMO coerced Duffy into taking money from Nigel Wright, Harper's then-chief of staff, and orchestrated the government's response to the allegations against him.

The RCMP are investigating Duffy over his housing expense claims. Duffy maintains the claims were legitimate and Bayne said Monday that they were approved by Marjory LeBreton, who was the Conservatives' leader in the Senate until last spring.

Harper faced questions from opposition MPs for the first time since the summer break in mid-June and since he signed a tentative trade deal with Europe last week.

However, both opposition leaders were missing from the House, leaving their deputy leaders to ask the lead questions.

The NDP's Megan Leslie kicked off by asking whether Harper could "confirm that his office threatened to kick Mike Duffy out of the Senate if he didn't go along with their scheme."

"Mike Duffy's lawyer spoke today at length and provided lots of new details. According to him, documents from the PMO outline how this involved, quote, cash for repayment," Leslie said.

Expect 'consequences'

Harper repeated what he's said every time he's been asked about the allegations in the ongoing Senate expenses scandal.

"We've been very clear that we expect all parliamentarians to respect the letter and the spirit of any rules regarding expenses and if they do not respect that, then they can expect there to be consequences and accountability for their actions," Harper said.

Harper then raised the Canada-EU trade deal and suggested the NDP are opposed.

"On the big issues they're wrong," Harper said.

Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale referred to Harper's June 5 answer in question period, where Harper said Wright acted alone.

"But the RCMP say that's false. They say at least three PMO staffers were informed ... plus certain Conservative senators. Now that he's been contradicted by the police, does the prime minister wish to amend his evidence?" Goodale said.

Harper suggested he had the wrong information when he spoke on June 5.

"I've already answered that question months ago, I answered according to the information I had at the time," he said in French before switching back to English.

"Of course these actions were the responsibility of Mr. Wright and Mr. Wright has accepted full responsibility for his actions, as he should."

With Nov. 25 now byelection day in two traditional but vulnerable Liberal strongholds in Montreal and Toronto, the NDP is keen to burnish its credentials as a government-in-waiting at Trudeau's expense.

Voters will also go to the polls in the staunchly Conservative Manitoba ridings of Provencher and Brandon-Souris, but the focus is likely to be on Toronto Centre and Montreal's Bourassa — formerly the stomping grounds of Bob Rae and Denis Coderre, respectively.

Trumpeting the trade deal

As expected, Harper was basking Monday in the triumphant glow of Canada's new deal with Europe, a win custom-made for the new Conservative attack slogan: while we support free trade, the NDP supports "no trade" and the Liberals support "the drug trade" — a dig at Trudeau's support for legalizing marijuana.

Despite the Senate questions, Harper and his ministers seemed relaxed and laughed easily in the House of Commons Monday.

Trade Minister Ed Fast, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Minister of State Maxime Bernier began banging the free-trade drum Monday with an event in Ottawa spelling out "the next steps ... to ensure all Canadians have the facts" about the agreement and its benefits.

That message isn't likely to drown out the din from the Senate for long, however.

Senator Pamela Wallin is fighting mad at the upper chamber's efforts to suspend her without pay, along with disgraced former Conservative caucus colleagues Duffy and Patrick Brazeau.

Wallin's lawyer, Terrence Sullivan, calls the suspension motions "a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy" that fly in the face of the Senate's own rules.

With files from The Canadian Press


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