OTTAWA – A “very upset” Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants any federal Conservative who is in politics to seek personal gain from public office to get out of his caucus.
Speaking to his MPs and senators in the midst of a scandal that took down his own chief of staff, Nigel Wright, over the weekend, Harper also promised to tighten Senate expense rules.
VIDEO: Nigel Wright quits (May 19)
“I don’t think any of you are going to be very surprised to hear that I am not happy,” Harper said in his first public comments since revelations last week that Wright wrote a personal cheque worth $90,000 to embattled Sen. Mike Duffy.
“I’m very upset about the conduct we have witnessed, the conduct of some parliamentarians and the conduct of my own office.”
Harper reminded his caucus about a pointed warning he first issued in 2005: no one seeking elected office to line their own pockets would be welcome.
“Anyone who wants to use public office for their own benefit should make other plans, or better yet, leave this room,” Harper said, jabbing his finger for effect.
Many in the caucus looked sombre as they awaited Harper’s arrival, but they greeted his speech with an ovation.
Before the meeting began, Heritage Minister James Moore was asked expressly whether he believes Duffy should resign his Senate seat.
“I think Canadians expect members of Parliament and senators to respect taxpayers’ dollars,” Moore said. “Anybody who is not here respecting that commitment to Canadians, they should get out, they should leave.”
Duffy and Sen. Pamela Wallin have already left the caucus amid lingering questions about their expense claims. In Duffy’s case, an independent audit has already red-flagged more than $90,000 in housing expenses and per diems.
The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed last week that Wright, one of Harper’s most trusted confidantes, wrote Duffy a personal cheque to cover paying back the expenses. Wright stepped down on Sunday.
Harper said he has discussed the situation with Sen. Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate.
“She has my full support to accelerate changes to the Senate’s rules on expenses and close any loopholes in those existing rules,” he said. “And I expect Conservative senators, regardless of what opposition you may face, to get that done.”
Harper said the Conservatives came to office pledged to clean up Ottawa politics and they have to follow through.
Quebec Sen. Jacques Demers said anyone who takes money they are not entitled to should pay a price.
“If these people have done what has been speculated that they have done, they should be fired, they should not just be going to independent,” he said.
The former Montreal Canadiens hockey coach stressed that he supports the prime minister, but is pondering his own future. Demers said he may have to leave if the scandal isn’t cleared up to his satisfaction.
“I really, really trust Mr. Harper,” he said. “I’m in reflection period. It means I’m going to see what’s going to happen. I want to see if I’m going to stay in the Senate.”