Blast from the Wright-Duffy past

October 31, 2013 column As the PMO's explanations for the Wright-Duffy affair become increasingly implausible (they are now reduced to saying senior staffers did not read emails from then-chief of staff Nigel Wright), I'd like to remind you that I declared the whole business intolerable in a Sun Media column nearly two years ago.

Unless it is OK for the prime minister to lie repeatedly and openly on an important matter, Stephen Harper must resign or be dismissed.

On Monday, Harper told a Halifax radio audience he “dismissed” former chief of staff Nigel Wright over the mysterious $90,000 cheque to Sen. Mike Duffy. But last Thursday, he told the House of Commons Wright “resigned.” So one or the other was a brazen, in-your-face lie. When pressed in Tuesday’s question period he haughtily declared, “Mr. Speaker, the facts are very clear. Mr. Wright acted inappropriately, and for that reason, I very clearly explained to him that he no longer worked for me.” If so, Harper lied to parliament five days earlier.

What is especially galling is it’s all a matter of record. He wasn’t lying to fool his supporters but to implicate them in the deception, to force them to put loyalty ahead of truth. Including defending that standard PMO whopper “the facts are very clear” when in this disgraceful business, by design, no facts are clear.

We don’t even know why this tale of dismissal only appeared five months after the fact. Let alone why on May 16, a Harper spokesman said Wright “will not resign” and “has the confidence of the prime minister,” three days later the PMO press office quoted Harper “with great regret” accepting Wright’s “resignation,” yet by May 21 the PM was “very upset” and a day later “extremely angry.”

In question period last Thursday, Harper said, “As soon as I knew, I made this information available to the public and took the appropriate action.” False. As was Tuesday’s question period,  “Mr. Speaker, there has been no change of story.”

This battalion of little lies surrounds and protects a much bigger one: That there was nothing to see, no reason to ask why the PM’s reaction changed, what he learned or when. Indeed the official story was Harper knew everything and nothing simultaneously. He knew Nigel Wright alone was behind this $90,000 cheque. But no one told him anything about the matter and he didn’t bother asking.

On May 23, Sen. David Tkachuk, then-chair of the Senate Internal Economy Committee, told Maclean’s he and Wright had discussed the Duffy mess because “the Prime Minister’s Office was very concerned about this.” Yet supposedly, when it suddenly went away thanks to Wright’s freelance plotting, nobody knew or asked what happened. Including the PM, who met with Duffy and perhaps Wright on Feb. 13 to discuss it.

Then, when the story suddenly resurfaced with Wright’s inexplicable cheque, Harper did not immediately and angrily demand a full explanation, including who else knew. Indeed, he again told the Commons on Tuesday, “On our side there is one person responsible for this deception and that person is Mr. Wright,” though even he now admits others knew and we have seen a key party lawyer’s signature on a second, hitherto-unsuspected cheque to Duffy.

We still don’t know what that payment was for, or who negotiated it. And the PMO says we have no business asking.

As Harper said of Paul Martin over the sponsorship scandal, either he knew and was guilty or did not and was incompetent. But Harper also lies constantly, including telling the House on Tuesday it was “regular practice” to cover legal expenses, like Duffy’s, while calling Duffy’s actions “shocking and unacceptable.” At least I hope that too was a lie.

As Tories gather in Calgary they should ask themselves, if they are to not become the problem they set out to solve, how they would feel if this web of deceit were spun by a Prime Minister Chretien or Mulcair or Trudeau Jr. And why, if they do not dismiss their chief, Canadians should not dismiss them.

Columns, PoliticsJohn Robson