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Trading places: latest session sees Tories, NDP swap ethical hot seat

OTTAWA - A parliamentary sitting that began with a Conservative scandal is coming to a close with the NDP in the ethical hot seat.

However rocky the Harper government's road has been, however spare its list of accomplishments since last fall's throne speech kicked off a new parliamentary session, the shift in the ethics spotlight has the Tories smiling as MPs depart the capital for a 12-week summer break.

"Since the throne speech, it's been a very positive one for the Conservative government, for the Conservative caucus," government House leader Peter Van Loan said Thursday.

"We're all, I think, leaving here in a very, very good mood as we've accomplished a lot, but I think we've been feeling that we have some momentum and our fortunes are good."

Van Loan cited the February budget — which put the government on track to eliminate the deficit this year, in time for the fall 2015 election — as "the cornerstone of our agenda." He contrasted the government's prudent economic management with what he described as NDP and Liberal "expensive tax, spend and borrow schemes that would hinder or reverse Canada's economic growth."

And he couldn't resist skewering the NDP one more time over its allegedly improper use of parliamentary resources to mail almost 2 million postage-free partisan missives and to staff satellite party offices.

The board of internal economy, which controls the parliamentary purse strings, recently found the NDP improperly spent $1.17 million on mailings that were found to be partisan in nature — a violation of Commons rules.

The official Opposition has been "reckless" with taxpayer dollars, Van Loan said. "Canadians understand the risk to taxpayers that the NDP represents."

Over the past couple of months, the Conservatives — aided and abetted by the Liberals — have been hammering New Democrats over the mailings and satellite offices. The Tories went so far as to force NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to face a two-hour grilling on the matter before a Commons committee.

They've delighted in turning the tables on Mulcair, who was widely praised for his relentless, prosecutorial grilling of Prime Minister Stephen Harper last fall over the Senate expenses scandal and who likes to portray his party as an ethically pure alternative to "Conservative corruption and Liberal corruption."

"On a certain level, you have to take it as a compliment," Mulcair said after this week's final NDP caucus meeting before the break.

" Whenever anyone stands up to Stephen Harper, they get attacked, whether you're (former nuclear safety watchdog) Linda Keen, (former parliamentary budget officer) Kevin Page, (chief electoral officer) Marc Mayrand. The list is long.

"We even saw him attack the chief justice of the Supreme Court and, for good measure, (former auditor general) Sheila Fraser. So, for the NDP to be attacked by the Conservatives ... is par for the course."

New Democrats insist they're the victims of a partisan witch hunt orchestrated by Conservatives and supported by the Liberals on the board of internal economy. The NDP intends to challenge the board's findings in court.

But the Conservatives aren't done with the NDP's supposed transgressions. The board wants the money paid back and has yet to rule on the satellite office issue, which could increase the amount owed by New Democrat MPs by some $3 million.

A final decision on the satellite offices is not expected until after the Commons returns on Sept. 15, ensuring partisan wrangling over NDP alleged misdeeds will continue in the fall.

The Conservatives have enjoyed more good news on the ethical front since the new year. The RCMP dropped its investigation into Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, for his role in bailing out Mike Duffy in the Senate expenses scandal.

And the commissioner of elections concluded there was no evidence of a conspiracy to use misleading robocalls to suppress non-Tory votes in the 2011 election — other than in Guelph, Ont., where a single junior Conservative campaign staffer has been charged.

But there's been plenty of trouble for the ruling party on other fronts — most of it self-inflicted.

The temporary foreign worker program has turned into a fiasco, with Canadian workers complaining they've lost their jobs to cheap foreign labour.

A long-awaited overhaul of election laws triggered a tidal wave of criticism from electoral experts at home and abroad, who feared it would disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters, create a campaign spending loophole designed to most benefit the Tories and muzzle the independent chief election watch dog.

Instead of seeking consensus, as is usually done for any change in the rules governing elections, the government doubled down, accusing its critics — in particular Mayrand and Fraser, who co-chairs an Elections Canada advisory board — of bias.

Only after weeks of raging controversy did the government back down and amend or drop the most contentious provisions of the bill.

The government also picked an unprecedented fight with Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin after the Supreme Court stymied or struck down some of the Tories' most cherished initiatives — Senate reform, several tough-on-crime measures and even Harper's appointment of Marc Nadon to the top court's bench.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau this week characterized the fights with Mayrand and McLachlin as symptomatic of a government that is at war against the very institutions designed to protect Canada's democracy.

But by and large, Trudeau has been content to let Mulcair lead the parliamentary charge against the government in the Commons while he travels the country. And he's personally remained largely above the fray as the Conservatives have targeted the NDP's alleged ethical transgressions.

As they break for the summer, the Tories are taking credit for knocking New Democrats off their sanctimonious high horse, while the NDP claps itself on the back for forcing the government to back down on the elections bill and retool the rules for temporary foreign workers.

Trudeau makes no similar claim. But his party continues to lead in opinion polls.

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