Scandal alarms Canada's ruling Conservatives ahead of convention

Wed Oct 30, 2013 3:23pm EDT
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By David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's ruling Conservatives go into what was supposed to be a triumphant convention this weekend trying to limit damage from a scandal over improper expenses that reaches the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and could undermine the party's chances of winning re-election in 2015.

Harper has been on the defensive since news broke that his then chief of staff, Nigel Wright, gave a personal check for C$90,000 ($85,700) to Mike Duffy, a member of the upper Senate chamber, to help repay expenses that Duffy improperly claimed.

Party legislators are split over how the crisis has been handled since it blew up in May and expect Harper to address it in a speech on Friday night.

The scandal threatens to cut into voter support for the right-leaning, low-tax, pro-business government of Harper, who won power in early 2006 promising to clean up Ottawa.

"It's a bit too early to slam the panic button, but I think the hands should be over the panic button," said pollster Nik Nanos, who sees the opposition Liberals ahead of the Conservatives by 37 percent to 29 percent.

If those numbers hold on election day two years from now, the Liberals, under new party leader Justin Trudeau, would almost certainly end nearly a decade of Conservative power.

The affair is expected to dominate the convention, which is being held in Calgary, Canada's oil capital and an area that traditionally votes Conservative. The meeting, postponed after the costliest floods in Canada's history swamped the city in June, was designed to highlight government priorities.

"Obviously people will want to talk about it, they'll want to hear from the prime minister on it. I'm assuming he (Harper) will address it," legislator Bob Dechert told reporters on Wednesday.   Continued...

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Wattie