April 5, 2015 9:55 am

Unpacking the Politics: What did Stephen Harper know about Mike Duffy’s expenses?

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An Ottawa courtroom is primed for what could be one of the biggest political events in years.

The charges against Mike Duffy are criminal, but the context is 100 per cent political. His trial begins Tuesday.

The story of this suspended senator, however, is but one thread in the epic and ongoing Senate expense scandal that has plagued the upper chamber since late 2012.

WATCH: From cheques to criminal charges, how we got here in the Mike Duffy scandal.

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With the main event around the corner, the question on every political observer’s mind is: Will this hurt Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the country heads toward a federal election?

“It’s not in the Crown’s interest,” said Ottawa Citizen parliamentary bureau chief Mark Kennedy.

READ MORE: Senate expense, housing rules under the microscope at Duffy trial

“I don’t think they even care if this hurts Stephen Harper. But it’ll be in the interest of Mike Duffy’s lawyer to bring evidence forward on that.”

The reason there’s so much interest in the trial to begin with, said political writer Susan Delacourt, is because of the link between Duffy’s expenses and the Prime Minister’s Office – after all, that infamous $90,000 personal cheque Duffy used to repay his dubious expense claims came from the prime minister’s right-hand man.

“This is not about a Senate reform or institutional dusty, old Senate,” Delacourt said. “This is about what the Prime Minister’s Office was doing.”

READ MORE: The key players in the Mike Duffy trial

Since its birth, the Senate expense scandal has had opposition MPs pointing the finger at Harper and his inner circle. And as the opening statements in Duffy’s trial draw ever nearer, the rhetoric is becoming even louder.

“Justin Trudeau last week said this is a judgement of the prime minister,” said David Akin, a political columnist with the Hill Times, noting the trial could run until June.

“It doesn’t matter – [suspended Senator Pamela] Wallin, or Duffy. Whoever it is, this is about the prime minister’s judgment. And certainly that’s what we’re going to hear from the political opponents.”

READ MORE: Dozens of current, former senators reportedly asked to account for expenses

Even though a verdict may come weeks – or days – before Canadians cast their ballots in October to elect the next federal government, many Conservatives don’t seem so nervous, Akin said.

“Duffy’s side is saying there are 800 emails that have not yet been released,” he said. “My sense is the PMO and the Conservatives, they know what Duffy’s got because they’re on the other side of his emails. And they’re feeling like Duffy probably doesn’t have many bullets left in his gun.”

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