OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper has mounted his most spirited defence in months on the Senate spending scandal, accusing Sen. Mike Duffy of playing the victim card because he was ordered to refund inappropriate expense claims.
"Mr. Duffy now says he is a victim because I told him he should repay his expenses," Harper told a high-octane House of Commons on Wednesday.
"Darn right I told him he should repay his expenses."
With his Conservative caucus enthusiastically hooting and banging their desks, Harper took the offensive in the daily question period, repeatedly rising to his feet to respond with vigour, if not always clarity.
His performance, which lasted 19 minutes, including opposition questions, served as an antidote to Duffy's toxic accusations levelled the previous afternoon in the Senate chamber.
Duffy claimed all his expenses were cleared by the Prime Minister's Office and Senate leadership, but he said he was thrown under the bus when news reports began undermining party popularity.
'Darn right I told him he should repay his expenses'
It was a scenario largely reiterated Wednesday by Sen. Pamela Wallin, another apostate Tory.
" 'It's not about what you did,' " Duffy quoted Harper telling him. " 'It's about the perception of what you did that's been created in the media. The rules are inexplicable to our base.' "
Harper denied making any such statement Wednesday. Instead, he dished up a bumper-sticker-simple response for the Conservative party base that has the benefit of being true, as far as it goes.
Yes, Harper agreed, he did order Duffy to repay the expense claims. As for the rest of the saga, the prime minister artfully managed to take none of the responsibility but all the credit.
Did he threaten Duffy with reprisals if he wouldn't go along with the scheme to repay his expenses?
No, said Harper.
"However, when inappropriate expense claims are made, I expect corrective action to be taken," Harper added, to roars of approval from his MPs.
"If it is not taken, a person who does not take corrective action could not expect to continue to sit as a member of the Conservative party."
Did he order the Senate to expel, without pay, Duffy and former Conservatives Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau?
That was a Senate decision, said the prime minister, before adding he wanted to "be unequivocal for the record: I fully support that motion. I do not believe that, under the circumstances, these individuals should be on the public payroll."
Would he testify under oath?
"I have been crystal-clear about this," Harper responded, before sliding off onto another subject.
Was his lawyer involved in the repayment negotiations?
Why was Duffy called to the Prime Minister's Office two days before the Feb. 13 meeting where Harper told him to repay his expenses?
"I think the allegation here is that Mr. Duffy and I were in Ottawa on the same day," quipped Harper, who by now was having fun batting away the opposition questions.
The prime minister even managed to impugn Duffy's credibility, saying "when Mr. Duffy went on national television (last March) to say that he had repaid his own expenses by taking out a loan against his assets, that is exactly what he should have done."
It was only weeks later that CTV revealed Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had paid Duffy's bill. The prime minister has steadfastly maintained he knew nothing of Wright's $90,000 cheque, and did so again Wednesday.
It won't satisfy his harshest critics, but Harper has mollified a Conservative caucus that has seemed mortified by the Senate expense scandal.
-- The Canadian Press