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Friday, 31 May 2013 12:18

Harper’s own advice the best way to deal with Senate scandal

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“My difficulty with the Prime Minister at this point is that I don't think he's been forthcoming and honest on fairly simple questions when there appeared to be contradictions.”


This statement sounds as if was made last week in reaction to the Senate expenses scandal, which has grown into a political embarrassment for the Harper government.

But this quote dates back eight years to a time when another Canadian prime minister was under siege as a result of a scandal. Then it was opposition leader Stephen Harper who made these remarks about the Liberal government of Paul Martin during an interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge.

In that same interview Harper also had some advice on how a prime minister should deal with questions about matters that might raise concerns over a government's credibility.

“My instinct is when somebody doesn't answer questions, even simple and fairly innocuous questions, in a straightforward manner there may be something else,” he said. “When you're under the kind of cloud the Prime Minister admits his government is under, I think you would use very opportunity to be as forthright as possible.”

The political clouds of controversy gathering over Harper's office have become increasingly darker since CTV revealed on May 14 that then chief of staff Nigel Wright made a secret payment of $90,172 from his own bank account to Senator Mike Duffy.

Since then a senator's apparent inappropriate use of taxpayer money has become a much wider issue of potential political interference into a Senate investigation about invalid expense claims.

So far the fallout from this debacle has resulted in the resignation of Wright and the departure of senators Duffy and Pamela Wallin from the Conservative caucus.

It appears as if Harper's credibility has suffered a significant blow as he did not follow his own advice from eight years ago on how to respond to simple and fairly straightforward questions.

During his address to the Conservative caucus on May 21 he did not directly address the deal with Duffy, but spoke about the need for a culture of accountability. A day later, during an official visit to Peru, he finally indicated he did not know about the secret cheque written by Wright.

Last week's daily question period in the House of Commons was dominated by opposition demands for documents and a full investigation.

It was met by a standard response from senior government ministers that there are no documents indicating the nature of the deal between Wright and Duffy and that the matter will be dealt with through the Senate internal committee and the House of Commons ethics commissioner.

So far this scandal has delivered many surreal moments. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who was called “in over his head” in a recent Conservative attack ad, fired back during the May 21 question period.

“The prime minister is in it up to his neck and the members opposite know it,” he said.

For many years Harper's demand for Senate reform was motivated by the lack of accountability in the then Liberal dominated Red Chamber. But last week it was Liberal senators squaring up against a Conservative Senate majority to demand an open inquiry.

Earlier this week the response from Harper and his senior ministers during question period in the House of Commons was to emphasize the Conservative Party's commitment to Senate reform and accountability. However, opposition questions about the secret deal between Wright and Duffy remained unanswered.

Amid daily media reports that continue to raise questions faster than they get answered by the government, the long-term impact of the scandal on the Harper government is still unclear.

The prime minister will be hoping to regain some public trust by the time voters go to the polls again in 2015.

But he will have to be mindful of the words of then opposition leader Stephen Harper when he spoke about the culture of entitlement during an address to the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto on Nov. 8, 2005.

During that speech he lamented the fact that the federal government’s ability to deal with important public policy challenges was hampered by overriding questions of ethics and accountability.

“Put bluntly, Canadians will not trust a government to tackle new challenges if it cannot clean up old messes,” he said. “And Canadians will not believe the federal government will be a force for good if it is not honest and not accountable.”

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Matthew Liebenberg