Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Answer questions once and for all

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Tory government are officially in emergency channel-changing mode.

On Wednesday, Harper was once again grilled in question period by opposition critics trying to prove he not only knew of, but masterminded what appears to be a bid to cover up some of the worst examples of improperly claimed living and travel expenses by Tory senators.

The opposition attack, spearheaded by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, was pointed and surgical. Questions were brief and specific, designed to unearth new details and catch Harper in an inconsistency. The questions were not idle; there is a substantial body of unknowns in this story.

Why did Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, give Tory Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to repay improperly claimed living and travel expenses? Who in the PMO knew about the deal between Wright and Duffy and when did they know it? How and why were the most damning details of Duffy's indiscretions subsequently sanitized from a Senate report? How much influence from the PMO was brought to bear on the Senate's investigation of expense claims?

These are the key questions necessary to determine whether there was, as has been alleged, an abuse of power by the PMO. Unfortunately, the deeper opposition critics dig, the further away from the truth we seem to get. What began as simple evasiveness has become a cynical effort to frustrate, obfuscate and distract.

When asked who in the PMO was responsible for overseeing the Senate expense file, nearly a dozen times Harper or a minister responded with counter-allegations against Mulcair related to the Quebec commission investigating political corruption.

It was recently revealed Mulcair may have been offered a bribe in 1994 by the former mayor of Laval. The NDP leader gave a statement to Quebec's anti-corruption squad in 2011, but never exposed the attempted bribe when it was offered.

Mulcair's recollections, and the decision he made in 1994 to remain quiet about what happened are clearly newsworthy. They are not, however, connected in any direct or indirect way to Ottawa's current preoccupation with Senate expenses. They also do not disqualify Mulcair from asking questions in question period.

Repeatedly bringing up the alleged bribe is an act of revenge by the government after it was abused by the opposition in question period. However, it is also a clear bid to divert attention away from the expense scandal, a strategy that does not put the government in a flattering light.

It is important to note the context of the exchanges. Question period, a once-important part of the daily parliamentary agenda, has been for some time now used and abused by politicians at both the federal and provincial levels.

It is supposed to be an opportunity for opposition politicians to question government officials on behalf of the citizens who voted for them. Unfortunately, question period is now where the government goes to absurd lengths to ignore presumptuous, overly hyperbolic opposition questions. It has been like this for so long, most of us in the media have become blas© about the whole thing.

Perhaps it is too much to expect any government to break from tradition and actually answer the questions put to them. Each QP is a tiny battle in its own right, and neither side wants to lose, even if it would be for a greater good.

On the other hand, in a bid to win the petty question-period war, Harper and his government are doing little to dampen interest in the Senate expense scandal. Efforts to divert attention are unlikely to persuade anyone but hard-core partisans.

Similarly inappropriate are the Tory government's efforts to slide past senator expenses into a full-scale debate on Senate reform or abolishment. The Senate may indeed need to be reformed, but improperly claimed living and travel expenses by four of 105 senators is not the most persuasive argument.

We know Harper's senior-most political aide gave a senator money to pay back improperly claimed expenses. We also know there were pledges made to the senator that an investigation into his expenses would be less strenuous if he paid back the money. Finally, we know the Senate report on those expenses was redacted to remove damaging findings on the senator in question.

If this was, as Harper has alleged, a poor decision made by an aide to help an ethically challenged senator, then the prime minister should bend over backwards to answer all questions as fulsomely as possible, within or without the House of Commons. Putting so much effort into trying to change the channel on this debate is not only not effective. It is the hallmark of a government with something to hide.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2013 A10

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