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Senate returns to business as usual despite spending scandal

Senator Mike Duffy speaks during the Maritime Energy Association's annual dinner in Halifax on Feb. 6, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Devaan Ingraham

“Colleagues, there can be no business as usual. Enough is enough.”

The clarion call from James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, came late Tuesday evening as Parliament’s chamber of sober second thought returned from a 10-day break to assess the damage.

Since the 105-seat appointed body last met more than a week earlier, a five-alarm expense scandal had engulfed Parliament Hill, taking down two more Conservative senators and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

In short, three Conservatives and one Liberal senator had been accused of fudging their expense accounts to claim tens of thousands of dollars to which they were not entitled.

And Wright had confessed to writing a secret, $90,000 personal cheque to bail out the most high profile of the three, Mike Duffy, in the midst of a Senate committee investigation that subsequently cleared Duffy of any wrongdoing.

Duffy stopped co-operating with a forensic audit as soon as he paid off his arrears with Wright’s “gift” and, according to CTV, had told others he’d won a deal from the Prime Minister’s Office to “go easy” on him.

Harper himself had addressed an emergency Conservative caucus meeting Tuesday morning, where he underlined the gravity of the situation by inviting in the television cameras and telling his MPs “I don’t think any of you are going to be very surprised to hear that I am not happy.”

He also issued clear instructions to his Senate Leader, Marjory LeBreton, “to accelerate changes to the Senate’s rules on expenses and close any loopholes in those existing rules.”

James Moore, the Conservative Heritage minister, went so far as to encourage Duffy to resign his Senate seat.

Expectations were high when the Senate finally convened around the dinner hour Tuesday.

Cowan, a former lawyer, opened the Senate question period with prosecutorial vigour, levelling short, direct questions at LeBreton across the aisle.

Why did the Senate report on Duffy not contain the same harsh language that was directed at former Liberal Mac Harb and excommunicated Tory Patrick Brazeau, given that all three were accused of exactly the same transgressions?

“In the case of Sen. Duffy, since the money had been repaid, I understand the case was made … that there was different wording used,” LeBreton offered.

“What’s the connection?” shot back Cowan.

LeBreton then suggested that tougher language in the Harb and Brazeau reports was designed to get them to pay up, too.

But she was forced to confess she didn’t really know. The only person answering questions on the government side in the Senate was not part of the internal economy committee that met behind closed doors to hash out the Duffy report.

“I can only surmise they discussed these things,” LeBreton said when confronted by Liberal committee member Joan Fraser.

After the daily Senate question period, Cowan raised a point of privilege, stating that the PMO’s demonstrable interference in the Duffy investigation was “contempt of parliament” that infringed on his “privileges as a senator, and it infringes the privileges of senators and the Senate and interferes in a spectacular way.”

The Speaker took the matter under advisement.

Harb rose on his own point of privilege, arguing he’s being asked to repay housing expenses even though auditors found no clear rules on what constitutes a primary residence.

Independent Senator Ann Cools rose to Harb’s defence.

“I heard a lot of calls today that this senator should quit or that senator should quit,” she said, noting the senate is designed to make senators independent and hard to dismiss. “It’s supposed to be a difficult process.”

Cools was the only senator to raise the issue of expulsion or resignation in any fashion.

The majority Conservatives then set to work, pushing through a motion that will send Duffy’s expense report back to the same Conservative-dominated committee that let him off the hook the first time around.

“It’s up to the board of internal economy to call in the authorities,” said P.C. Nolin, speaking for the government side.

The Conservatives also pushed through a motion adopting the suspect committee’s report on Brazeau’s expenses, but dropped a motion that would have stiffened up reporting rules for Senate expenses such as taxi chits.

A little over a week ago the Conservatives accused the Liberals of blocking reforms because they’d insisted on reading the expense changes before adopting them. Tuesday night they fell off the agenda.

Claude Carignan, the deputy Conservative Senate leader, said as he left the upper chamber that because LeBreton wasn’t prepared to speak to the expenses motion Tuesday night, it was delayed until Wednesday.

As for sending Duffy’s expenses back to same internal economy committee that gave preferential treatment to Duffy before, Carignan disagreed.

“I think the committee did a great job,” he told The Canadian Press.

“Sen. LeBreton explained that is it different because the fee (owed by Duffy) accepted to repay, so it’s totally different. We don’t need to go with more information or more motivation in our report,” said Carignan, adding “it’s not bad faith.”

Cowan had another take.

“If somebody wasn’t sanitizing the report going easy on Sen. Duffy, then what is the answer?” asked Cowan.

There were no answers Tuesday night. It was business as usual.