Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair tests Harper's 'new era of accountability'

Stephen Harper came to office in 2006 in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal promising a "new era of accountability." But that promise is not all that evident in the Wright-Duffy affair, Chris Hall writes.

New RCMP documents raise more questions than answers about Mike Duffy payment

Prime Minister Stephan Harper and his minister for international development, Christian Paradis, answer questions at a news conference in Lac Megantic, Que., on Thursday. (Canadian Press)

For his single-minded devotion to business as usual, you have to hand it to Stephen Harper. Really.

There he was Thursday in Lac Megantic, far away from Parliament Hill, committing $95 million to the critical work of decontaminating the site of one of the worst rail disasters in Canadian history.

Harper is frequently the face of his government when it comes to big spending announcements. Good news like that is good for the PM's image.

But when it comes to the $90,000 doled out by his former top adviser to solve a political problem largely of Harper's own making, well, then the responsibility rests squarely with others.

For months now, Harper has ducked, weaved and laid the blame on Nigel Wright for having the poor sense of paying off Senator Mike Duffy's improperly claimed living expenses; and also on Mike Duffy for lying about having used his own money when he hadn't.

The prime minister's lines have changed each time the scandal deepened: from first praising Wright's intentions to later condemning them, from saying Wright ''acted alone'' to suggesting he told ''very few.'' He has also morphed from saying Wright resigned, to insisting his former chief of staff was dismissed.

This week, new RCMP court documents related to their investigation of the Wright-Duffy affair, made it clear that many more people knew of Wright's decision than the ''very few'' he referred to.

They include a half-dozen of the most senior people inside his own office, as well as at least one senator and two officials with the Conservative Party.

None of those people have paid a price for helping keep what Harper now describes as Wright's ''deception.''

Nor does it appear any of them will.

A higher accountability

"It's important to note that the inappropriate action taken here was by Mr. Wright at his own initiative and obviously [by] Mr. Duffy, who deliberately lied to the public about those things,'' Harper said in Lac Megantic when reporters pressed him on the matter at a brief news conference.

Senator Mike Duffy and former chief of staff Nigel Wright. "We are good to go from the PM," Wright emailed fellow PMO staffers in February about a Duffy repayment plan. What exactly was he referring to? (Reuters / CBC)

As for his own responsibility for the actions of people in his office, Harper was mute. This buck is for passing.

That stance is, of course, entirely at odds with the standards Harper promised when he first came to power in 2006.

In those days, a Conservative win meant a new era of accountability in Ottawa. He vowed Conservative ministers and political staff would be held to a higher standard of conduct than the Liberal government that preceded them.

Canadians were told he would brook no aberrant behaviour, no case in which anyone in his government would profit from his or her position.

The promise became an important selling point in Harper's win, and was built on voter fatigue with the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

Living up to those standards today in the midst of the Wright-Duffy scandal may well determine the Conservative hold on office two years from now.

Harper is now the leader under siege over what he knew, and when he knew it.

He's being pressed to explain why staff in his office seemed to work harder on the cover-up, keeping the issue under wraps, than on saving taxpayers' money from being spent on Mike Duffy's expenses.

Perhaps most troubling, he's being pressed to explain why his confidantes went to such lengths to meet the conditions Duffy imposed on their dealings, including one ''to keep him whole on the repayment'' — something the RCMP documents released this week make clear Wright reported to Harper way back on Feb. 22.

"I want to speak to the PM before everything is considered final,'' Wright sent to others in the office. An hour later he sent another email indicating ''we are good to go from the PM.''

The larger question

Harper insists the ''good to go'' meant he was good with Duffy repaying the $90,000. Not, as the RCMP investigator writes in the documents, "I believe the term keep him whole means that Senator Duffy would not be financially out of pocket.''

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair seized on this point Thursday in question period.

"Since when does the prime minister of Canada have to approve a senator repaying his own expenses,'' Mulcair thundered.

Harper, of course, wasn't there to hear it. He was in Lac-Mégantic. The answer fell to his parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra.

"As I've said on a number of occasions,'' Calandra solemnly intoned as though his words carry the same weight as those of his boss, ''and as the prime minister has said, the standard that we expect on this side of the House is that if you have some expenses you did not incur you should not be accepting those expenses, Mr. Speaker.''

That might pass as an answer explaining why the government wanted Duffy to be held accountable, but it doesn't begin to address the larger question.

Harper's been even less clear on what Wright meant in another email sent May 14  the day before the PM says he learned Wright had paid for Duffy's expenses.

In that email, Wright says this: "The PM knows, in broad terms only, that I personally assisted Duffy when I was getting him to repay the expenses.''

There's been no explanation of when the PM knew this, or what Wright means by ''broad terms only.''

It doesn't appear the RCMP are focused on getting answers to those questions either. As Harper says, only Wright and Duffy are under investigation.

"After months of interviews and review of documents,'' Harper read from the RCMP production order made public this week, ''the investigator says he is not aware of any evidence that the prime minister was involved in the repayment or reimbursement of any money to Mr. Duffy. The RCMP could not be clearer.''

And that's the message the prime minister wants Canadians to remember. In the Wright-Duffy affair, the man who would be the face of the government was left in the dark.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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