Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper needs to quit hiding behind his staff

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Will Prime Minister Stephen Harper ever face a direct question about how his chief of staff became inexplicably involved in the raging Senate expense scandal?

Right now, loyal cabinet ministers are taking bullets for Harper in question period and senior staff are handling media interviews. And in one of the best scheduling conflicts ever, Harper was scheduled to leave Tuesday on a Latin American trade mission, making it more difficult and more unlikely he will be forced to answer any questions.

On Sunday, former chief of staff Nigel Wright resigned after CTV News reported he had personally given Tory Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to repay improperly claimed living expenses. CTV further reported the loan came with a promise a committee investigating Senate expenses would go easy on Duffy, implying political interference from the Prime Minister's Office.

There was some hope Harper would provide some illumination Tuesday. Just a few hours before he was to board a plane for the trade mission, Harper addressed the Tory caucus and delivered a nine-minute speech that demonstrated his unease with recent revelations but failed to add any new information about the scandal. Journalists were allowed into the caucus room -- a rare event, to be sure -- but were not allowed to ask questions.

Harper indicated he was "very upset" about the revelations and condemned the actions of any member of the government who was not scrupulous about repaying the government for personal expenses. And that was that. With dust devils of scandal enveloping Parliament Hill, Harper hovered at 20,000 feet with no plan to land.

Why should the prime minister become personally involved in the fallout of this scandal? Simply put, there is no plausible, obvious explanation for what his chief of staff did. If Harper did not know about Wright's deal with Duffy, which is what government spokespeople are asserting, then we can conclude he asked his own questions when it was uncovered. It would serve the public interest if, at the very least, the prime minister would reveal what he found out.

Harper's refusal to comment directly on the mess only deepens the mystery and provokes more speculation about what the prime minister knew prior to the loan to Duffy and what he found out after it became public.

Some worried Tories, and there are more and more of them every day, have faith the federal ethics commissioner, who has been asked to review the Wright-Duffy dealings, will get to the truth of the matter. It's always a dangerous undertaking to predict the outcome of a process like this, but it's relatively safe to say any report from the ethics commissioner will be less than satisfying.

This office has neither the authority nor the wherewithal to fully investigate Wright's loan to Duffy and the possible impact that had on the committee's work. Although it can compel evidence, this office has functioned more as an adviser to parliamentarians and less like a watchdog. In other words, it is a convenient place for this scandal to die. Worst of all, the ethics commissioner will ultimately serve as yet another layer of mud to insulate the prime minister even more than now.

Harper's staff, at least those not implicated in the Duffy ordeal, are using standard practice to protect Harper from this scandal.

In a crisis, political staff always try to keep leaders from having to face direct questions so they are not haunted forever by the answers. The prime minister has already suffered some by wading into the Senate expense scandal.

Harper initially tried to downplay the scandal, at one point staunchly defending Tory Sen. Pamela Wallin and reporting initial audit results revealed nothing untoward. When it was learned later that Wallin had repaid a "substantial" part of the $321,000 travel expenses under scrutiny, he began distancing himself from the file.

It is not the prime minister's fault that some members of his government are ethical simpletons. By all accounts, Harper is meticulous about his own ethical behavior and has never minced words when warning his caucus to hold the same high standards.

And yet, as prime minister and leader of the Conservative party, he should be a champion and agent of the truth. He must serve the public interest in this matter and ensure the details of the scandal are thoroughly exposed.

Harper rose to power in large part on a pledge that his government would meet a higher moral and ethical standard than those that came before. That's easy to say when you're running to replace an ethically challenged incumbent government. It's apparently much harder to do once you are in government.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2013 A4

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