Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recurring political headache is about to flare up.
Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff between 2011 and 2013, is scheduled to testify Wednesday in Ottawa at the criminal trial of former Conservative lawmaker Mike Duffy, who is accused of misusing his expense claims.
The high-profile testimony draws attention back to the biggest political scandal under Harper’s watch just as Canada’s longest election campaign since 1892 gains steam. Any developments that tie the prime minister to the case are sure to raise the stakes ahead of the Oct. 19 vote and opposition leaders are already seeking to take political advantage.
“On a whole series of subjects, Mr. Harper has said one thing and its opposite in the Mike Duffy affair,” New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair told reporters Tuesday at a campaign stop in Quebec. “A lot of that is going to be catching up with Mr. Harper this week.”
In a bid to capitalize on the increased publicity around the trial, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held an event Tuesday to promote his plan to reform the Senate, which has been plagued by a number of spending scandals beyond Duffy’s.
A former journalist that Harper appointed to Canada’s Senate in 2009, Duffy is facing 31 criminal charges for fraud, breach of trust and bribery related to expense claims, including allegations he billed taxpayers for family trips. His trial began April 7 and is resuming after an almost two-month recess. The proceedings begin at 10 a.m. in Ottawa.
Wright, a Harvard-trained lawyer and managing director at private equity firm Onex Corp., is implicated because he gave Duffy a personal check for C$90,000 ($69,300) to repay the disputed expense claims, which had become an embarrassment for the government.
It marked the first time scandal implicated Harper’s inner circle, raising questions of what the prime minister knew and when he knew it. Trudeau said Tuesday the case reflects how Harper is seeking to hold on to power at any cost.
“What Canadians are going to be seeing confirmed in the coming days of this Duffy trial and Nigel Wright’s testimony is we have in Ottawa a government that is solely and uniquely focused on its own well being and its own survival,” Trudeau told reporters in Montreal.
It’s an issue that has cost the government politically. The Conservative Party’s polling numbers hit their lowest since the 2011 election soon after the allegations were revealed in 2013 and have never risen back to pre-scandal levels. National averages compiled Aug. 7 by polling aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com show the NDP in the lead with 33 percent support, the Conservatives close behind with 30.9 percent and the Liberals at 26.1 percent.
Harper has said he always thought that Duffy repaid the Senate for the expenses himself and that he had no knowledge of Wright’s financial assistance.
“I said to Mr. Duffy he should repay those expenses. I was told he was going to repay those expenses and we were all told he had repaid those expenses,” the prime minister said at a campaign appearance Tuesday near Toronto.
“When I learned that was not true I made that information public and we have taken appropriate actions to make sure people are being held accountable.”