Video: The Senate expense scandal mess will remain a thorn in the prime minister’s side as the Conservatives head to their convention. Mike Le Couteur reports.
OTTAWA — Conservative leadership in the Senate has softened the proposed sanctions against three of its members at the heart of the spending scandal despite the hard line the prime minister has taken this week.
The Conservatives are hoping this move puts an end to the politically volatile debate that’s been raging for a week and a half by Friday, before the prime minister takes the stage in Calgary at his party’s convention. It remains uncertain whether a vote will come that quickly, though.
Deputy leader of the government in the Senate, Yonah Martin, gave notice Wednesday that she would introduce one new motion to suspend all three senators accused of filing inappropriate expense claims, replacing the three original motions introduced last week.
The new motion would keep Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau from collecting a salary, but allow them access to medical benefits and life insurance.
Three things separate this motion from the initial ones: it allows the senators to keep some benefits, it suspends all three senators using one vote instead of three, and it is classified as “government business” rather than “Senate business.”
It’s that last part that could make it more difficult for the Conservatives who have been speaking out against the motions to vote their conscience, for a vote against the motion could be seen as a vote against the government.
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who has vocally criticised the lack of due process the motions offer, said he will now have a harder time voting with his conscience.
“I have to assess what I’m going to do between now and then. As a general principle, I’ve never voted against a government motion,” he said, adding that the new motion at least demonstrates some human decency.
Conservative leader in the Senate Claude Carignan, however, told reporters that whenever the vote happens, it will be “a totally free vote.”
Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, the opposition continued grilling Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the bombshells Duffy dropped earlier this week— a $13,560 cheque the Conservative party cut to cover Duffy’s legal fees, as well as the beleaguered senator’s claims that the Prime Minister’s Office dictated every word and every step he took as the spending scandal grew.
Opposition parties demanded to know what the prime minister knew, when he knew it, and the circumstances under which his former chief-of-staff left the Prime Minister’s Office.
But Harper dodged questions of whether former chief-of-staff, Nigel Wright, had resigned or was dismissed after cutting Duffy a $90,000 cheque to help the senator repay housing allowances.
“Mr. Wright and I both agreed that his actions are completely inappropriate. That’s why he’s no longer working for us,” Harper said during the afternoon question period.
Instead of answering directly, the prime minister turned the tables to attack NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, asking him why he let “his party” repay legal fees to the tune of $100,000 in a libel case.
The circumstances to which Harper referred stem from 2002, when a court ordered Mulcair, who was then a Liberal member of the provincial legislature in Quebec, to pay close to $100,000 in damages.
Mulcair never entertained the question, instead focusing on demanding answers to why the Conservative party footed the $13,500 bill for Duffy’s legal fees.
To that, the prime minister repeated his defence of using Conservative funds to pay for Senator Mike Duffy’s $13,560 legal fees, saying it happens from “time to time,” although he would not say specifically what services were rendered for the money.
Harper repeated his demand for Duffy to be “removed from the public payroll,” continuing his counter attack on the embattled senator who has been slowly lifting the curtain on his version of events- one he calls nefarious and conspiratorial.
VIDEO: Opposition parties unanimous in calling for Harper to address senate scandal fully before Parliament
When not making explosive revelations, Duffy has tried to pull on heart strings, asking his colleagues how they expect him to access medication for a heart problem if he has no salary or benefits.
Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate, and the man behind the initial motions to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, said his caucus took the decision to give the senators access to some benefits recognizing the difficulty they could face getting private insurance since the proposed suspension is only set to last two years.
READ MORE: Duffy claims Tories paid his legal fees
The step to change the proposed sanctions against the three beleaguered senators indicates deep division among Conservatives both inside and out of the Senate chamber, NDP caucus chair Peter Julian said Wednesday morning.
“This seems to be dividing the party and the caucus,” he said. “I guess what we’re seeing now is some desperate attempts to make this motion more palatable to the Senate caucus.”
Liberal leader in the Senate James Cowan agreed, telling reporters the amendments were “designed, presumably, to heal the rifts in the Conservative caucus.”
VIDEO: Conservative heavy-hitters disagreeing with PM over senate suspensions (Oct 27)
–With a file from The Canadian Press