Columns

A lonely stand on behalf of morality

Peter C. Newman May 19 1997
Columns

A lonely stand on behalf of morality

Peter C. Newman May 19 1997

A lonely stand on behalf of morality

The Nation’s Business

Peter G. Newman

Voters never get a chance to get politicians to back off and stop lying. Until now. This week, Canada’s potentially most explosive political trial—which will test a new law that prohibits B.C. office seekers from telling deliberate lies—moves another step towards actually happening. The legal proceedings could overthrow British Columbia’s New Democratic Party government. A sideeffect should be to halt, or at least seriously slow down, the dissemination of lies being thrown around by every party leader in the current federal campaign. If only such a law could have been in effect in Quebec when Jacques Parizeau was promising no immediate separation after a referendum victory!

The May 13 Vancouver pretrial conference will set the agenda for the action brought by Kelowna printer David Stockell against the Glen Clark government. In February, Chief Justice Bryan Williams of the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that Stockell would be allowed to sue the NDP administration for electoral fraud. Stockell and his small band of supporters accuse Clark and his finance minister, Andrew Petter, and others of lying about the state of the province’s finances before and during the 1996 provincial election.

Stockell contends that the NDP’s repeated boasts that the province’s accounts were either balanced or in a surplus position were deliberate misstatements. They have obtained working papers drawn up by the finance department’s senior bureaucrats that clearly indicate the opposite.

Whether the courts will allow a full-scale class action to proceed is not yet clear. But even if the trial is limited to petitioners from a trio of B.C. swing ridings who claim that had they known the truth about the province’s finances they would not have voted for the NDP, the case will proceed. Negation of voting in the three ridings would deprive the NDP of its razor-thin majority, pending the resulting byelections. (The NDP has 39 seats, while B.C. opposition parties hold a total of 36.)

The case is based on Section 256 of the B.C. Election Act, which specifically forbids political parties to use “fraudulent means” to win elections. That section, ironically, inserted by the previous NDP government under Mike Harcourt, can be triggered by voter complaints. Because provincewide polls financed by Stockell claim that nearly a third of B.C. voters would not have voted for the socialist ticket had they been made aware of the true state of B.C. finances, he is confident his crusade will go ahead as a class action.

“A class action would mean that we could challenge the legality of the election of all 39 of the NDP’s MLAs,” he told me last week. ‘We would immediately issue summonses for examinations of discovery where Clark and Petter would have to testify under oath

If David Stockell’s B.C. legal challenge succeeds, he will turn his attention to lying in federal election campaigns, too

about what they knew, and when. In any case, we will also gather statements from the finance department’s civil servants who wrote the incriminating memos, and passed them on to the premier’s office. We’ll be into a full trial by July. If we win, Clark will either have to resign or call an election.”

Stockell is angry and concerned about the issue, but he is no revolutionary, and before championing his current cause never thought of himself as a political activist. Raised in Magrath, near Lethbridge, Alta., he believes that Pierre Trudeau was the first contemporary prime minister to bring disrespect into Canadian politics, with Brian Mulroney running a close second. “What kick-started my campaign was a quote from Edmund Burke, the British philosopher, who wrote that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” he says. “I’m not really politically motivated. Would I run if another B.C. election is called? No, I wouldn’t. However, I’d canvass for those candidates I thought represented integrity and moral values.”

He has been asked to join demonstrations and become a political candidate, but has turned down all invitations. “It’s a non-political issue,” he keeps stressing. “It’s a legal issue of a voter fighting a government that broke a law they themselves wrote.”

Stockell also has no plans to intervene in the federal campaign. Not because he believes every word “blowin’ in the wind” these days, but because, incredibly, unlike the B.C. statute, the federal Elections Act contains no provision against lying. Stockell promises, eventually, to campaign to remedy that omission, but he promises not to push for retroactivity. (That would wipe out most of our political history.)

In an election that has yet to produce a reason for having been called, Stockell’s lonely stand on behalf of old-fashioned morality is the most significant citizen protest in the country right now. If his case is upheld—and on the face of it, his accusations seem solid enough—he will have set a political standard that the other provinces and the federal government will have to follow. This could turn Canadian politics upside down.

One problem: if politicians are not allowed to lie, how will they fill their platform time during campaigns? “We all have to ask ourselves,” says Stockell, “should we vote for a party whose leader in the last election convincingly and emphatically promised to get rid of the Goods and Services Tax, even wrote it into his Red Book— and then, on TV, denied having made the pledge, only to recant it later? Is that the kind of political party that we want to re-elect? Jean Chrétien is a good old boy kind of politician, not devious like Trudeau, but I wonder why people would vote for him again.”

Everybody complains about our politicians, but David Stockell is doing something about it.