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Wright's emails reveal a controlling and manipulative PMO

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When Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright testified on Wednesday in the trial of Senator Mike Duffy he did not come empty-handed.

He brought with him a thick binder of emails involving a slew of Conservative heavy hitters in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), in Harper's inner circle, and in the Senate.

On the very first page, there is an intriguing statement that reveals much about Harper's attitude on the key question at the heart of the entire scandal.

The black letter language of the Canadian constitution states that Senators must not only own property in the provinces they represent, they must also be "resident in" those provinces.

A prefatory note to Wright's binder of emails reveals how Harper could so blithely ignore the second of those provisions in naming well-known Ontario residents Duffy and Pamela Wallin to represent PEI and Saskatchewan respectively.

"Some of the attached emails," the note says, "refer to a parallel policy process initially intended to develop bright-line demonstrations of Senators' residency for constitutional qualification purposes. The prime minister did not agree with this initiative, as he viewed the matter to be long-settled historically as requiring ownership of a residence in the province of appointment, so the process was shut down within a few days." [Emphasis added]

There you have it.

Harper believed he could appoint anyone to the Senate as long as they owned $4,000 worth of property in the province they were to represent, full stop. Where they might actually live, notwithstanding the clear words of the constitution, was a matter of utter indifference to the Conservative leader.

Harper has never levelled with the Canadian people on this.

When asked why he chose to appoint non-resident Senators in the first place, he has slyly ducked the question each and every time.

In addition, Harper still tries to claim that he had no role in the whole Duffy mess.

We are to believe that his palace guard and others close to him -- Wright, Chris Woodcock, Benjamin Perrin, Marjory LeBreton, Ray Novak, Andrew MacDougall, Irving Gerstein and all the rest -- treated their boss like a mushroom. They, apparently, kept the famously controlling prime minister in the dark and fed him shit.

Harper repeated one of his biggest whoppers on the campaign trail, Tuesday, at the same time as Wright was testifying in Ottawa.

The Conservative leader told reporters he never knew Wright had paid the $90,000 for Duffy. When he found out he claimed that he "made the information public" and took other appropriate action, including dumping Wright.

In fact, however, it was CTV news that made the $90,000 payment public. And senior Conservatives' initial reaction was not to distance themselves from Wright. Far from it. A number of them, including then parliamentary secretary Pierre Poilievre, said Wright was almost a patriot for having spared taxpayers the expense.

In May 2013, after Wright announced he was quitting, Harper said he was only reluctantly accepting his Chief of Staff's resignation -- and with deep regret, at that.

Six months later, Harper claimed that he had fired Wright. He has made that claim repeatedly since then.

PMO became obsessed with the 'Duffy problem'

After Wright paid the $90,000 for Duffy the PMO he led directed that negative language about Duffy in a Senate Internal Economy Committee report be removed and that a Deloitte and Touche audit of a number of Senators' expenses spare Duffy.

While what Duffy would later call this "monstrous" conspiracy was being concocted, here is what some of the key players were saying to each other, via the emails tabled in court on Tuesday.

In February, 2013, Harper's Director of Issues Management, Chris Woodcock, wrote to Wright and a few senior staffers in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO): 

"Senator Duffy is going to issue the following statement. Senator [Marjory] LeBreton [then Government House Leader in the Senate] asked him to put something out in response to the stories. I've given the text my ok."

And then comes Duffy's statement:

"As a long-time Prince Edward Islander, I am proud to represent my province and its interests in the Senate of Canada. I also represent taxpayers with care. I have a home in Prince Edward Island and I have provided the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration with documentation demonstrating that I am a resident. I look forward to the Committee completing its Senate-wide review."

Wright's gloomy response is instructive: "Agree. But let this small group be under no illusion. I think this is going to end badly..."

Prophetic words.

A few days later, Wright typed out another email, this time addressing the constitutional residency conundrum.

"My own view," he wrote, "is that one would interpret the constitutional requirement through a purposive approach. Its purpose was to ensure that Senators would represent the provinces from which they were appointed. I believe that Mike's ownership of property there, time spent there, and engagement with the political life of the province would likely meet the constitutional test. As regards Senate expenses, the concept of a primary residence implies the existence of at least one other residence. So Mike could be primarily resident in the National Capital Region for expense rules and still constitutionally resident in PEI."

There you have it. The prime minister can appoint a non-resident such as Duffy to the Senate, as long as he has some vague and undefined "engagement with the political life" of the province he is supposed to represent, and "spends time" there.

That does not mean, however, someone in Duffy's situation could then claim a primary residence in "his" province. There are two kinds of residency, it seems: one that is "constitutional" and another that is, well, common sense.

Wright's argument entails a fair bit of hair-splitting. It has never been tested either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion.

Wright snapped orders to the Senate leadership

When the Senate Internal Economy Committee decided to audit the expenses of three Senators, Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb and Duffy, the PMO and Conservative Senate leadership went to great lengths to "protect" Duffy.

On February 7, 2013, a Senate staffer wrote to Wright and LeBreton:

"On the advice of the Clerk, they are going to say that the Chair and Deputy Chair of the committee have requested independent legal advice as opposed to referring to the Steering Committee so as not to make it an official process in order to protect Senator Duffy."

From this point on, the whole affair was going to occupy an enormous amount of PMO and senior Conservative brass' time and energy.

A week after the missive about "protecting" Duffy, Wright issued the following email to a select inner group:

"I met with Duff today. He will repay, with a couple of conditions, including that admitting to a primary residence in Ottawa does not disqualify him from representing PEI in the Senate..."

Ha.

That didn't last.

Not long after that hopeful statement, Wright gets testy when LeBreton and Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan write a letter to the Senate's Internal Economy Committee asking that it investigate the questions surrounding the residency expenses of Duffy and several others.

When Duffy asks Wright about this letter, the prime minister's Chief of Staff responds: "I had no foreknowledge of it. When I learned of it I asked for all unilateral action from that office to cease before being cleared with me. I was not pleased."

Then, a little later, in another email to senior PMO colleagues, Wright adds: "... And why share the credit with Cowan? And why do it without knowing the consequences of the statement. Will all of Sen. Wallin's expenses be found to be improper technically but morally acceptable? To repeat ...no further action from that office at all without pre-clearance with us..."

Note Wright's unambiguous, arrogant language.

"I was not pleased..."

"No further action... without clearance from us..."

From these emails we learn that Harper's PMO had not a scintilla of respect for the independence of one of the two houses of Parliament. It blithely issued orders to Senators as though they were a junior high school class with a discipline problem.

Senior Conservative ranks showed themselves to be amoral

In everything they did and said, the senior ranks of the Conservative party and the PMO were in a full court press to control and manage a politically embarrassing situation. 

Wright may be gone, but most of those copied on the emails tabled in court are still around. One of those deeply involved, for instance, was Ray Novak, who was then Harper's Principal Secretary. He has subsequently replaced Wright as Harper's Chief of Staff.

What never comes up in all of these pages of emails is any consideration of what might be the right thing to do.

On the stand on Tuesday, Wright admitted that, in hindsight, paying the $90,000 for Duffy might have been a mistake.

At the time, Wright told the court, he believed he was "helping out the system." Amazingly, Harper's former Chief of Staff admitted, with a straight face and no hint of irony, that he did not think too long or hard about writing a cheque for what to most ordinary mortals would be a huge sum of money.

That's something else emerging from this trial -- aside from a clear sense of the rampant amorality in the top ranks of the Conservative government. We're getting some revealing insight into how the 1% -- folks for whom $90,000 is mere spare change -- view the world. 

 

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