NATIONAL

Whiff of scandal lingers in Ottawa

AARON WHERRY April 28 2008
NATIONAL

Whiff of scandal lingers in Ottawa

AARON WHERRY April 28 2008

Whiff of scandal lingers in Ottawa

Questions about the Tories' integrity are beginning to pile up

NATIONAL

AARON WHERRY

After some stumbling about, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion arrived at the central question of the day. “What is going on?” he begged, to open question period on Tuesday. A moment later, Michael Ignatieff offered two supplementaries: “How did it get to this?” and “Why did we get here?” Good questions all, not that they should expect answers any time soon.

Hours earlier, Elections Canada, assisted by the RCMP, had arrived at the door of Conservative party headquarters in downtown Ottawa and executed a search warrant. In the parlance of headline writers, this was a “raid” and, in short order, the 12th-floor hallway of the nondescript office building was filled with reporters—so many that the landlord deemed the situation a fire hazard and ordered most of the mob back down to the lobby. The accusations of improper campaign spending that appeared to spur such police action were not unknown to those on Parliament Hill. But here, for perhaps the first time, was something tangible. Something TV cameras could dutifully capture for repeated airing on the evening news. Not surprisingly, the mood among Liberals was described by one source as “ebullient.”

The awkwardly dubbed “in-and-out” scandal has pitted the Conservatives against the

electoral commissioner for months now. After reviewing financial records for the Tory campaign in 2006, Elections Canada refused to reimburse more than 60 Tory candidates— including several cabinet ministers—for what the party claimed were legitimate local advertising costs. The commissioner says the party transferred thousands of dollars to local candidates, who then sent the money back to the party to pay for national ads— putting the party over its national spending limit by approximately $1 million. The Conservatives claim the ads were local (a list of candidates apparently appeared at the end of each ad) and have asked the Federal Court to intervene. Elections Commissioner Wil-

ELECTIONS CANADA CLAIMS THE TORY CAMPAIGN SPENT $1 MILLION OVER THE LEGAL LIMIT IN 2006

liam Corbett has proceeded with an inquiry that could result in criminal charges.

Rising in the House of Commons on Tuesday to offer the government’s first official comment on the search, the Prime Minister was typically bullish, seeming to stop just short of alleging conspiracy. “The Conservative party initiated court action against Elections Canada some time ago on the advertising issue,” he said. “I also would observe that tomorrow Elections Canada officials were scheduled to be examined by lawyers from the Conservative party. While today’s actions may or may not delay that somewhat, we remain extremely confident in our legal position.” Later, a party official, speaking anonymously of course, went further, denouncing “a

public relations stunt and a tactic of intimidation on Elections Canada’s behalf.”

It was Ignatieff who offered the most succinct rebuttal. “Mr. Speaker, this is what we get when we play fast and loose with election law,” he admonished. “This is what we get when we stonewall Elections Canada. This is what we get when we cheat and we get caught. This is what we get with this Prime Minister. He sets the tone. Will he finally admit that this is about his character?”

This is where this is going—directly to the Harper government’s claim on high office. Liberals have worked to make integrity an issue and found themselves repeatedly blessed with alleged controversies and coverups. Government MPs enjoy dismissing what they term “imaginary scandals,” but the list of unanswered questions the opposition can draw on grows by the week. Was Chuck Cadman bribed? Who leaked details of diplomatic conversations concerning NAFTA? How much did the government know of detainee torture in Afghanistan? What more is to be revealed about the dealings of Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber? Did anyone in government improperly influence the last Ottawa mayoral campaign? And so on.

Campaigning two years ago, Harper warned what another Liberal government would mean for the country. “If the Liberals are reelected,” he said, “this is what Canadians can look forward to, a government preoccupied with ongoing scandals, corruption and police investigations.” Seems he was half right. “It turns out that it is not much different over here than it was over there,” NDP Leader Jack Layton cried on Tuesday, “and the RCMP has had to be called in again. The question is why? What do they have to hide?”

If the answer is nothing, the Tories did a poor job of demonstrating as much on Tuesday afternoon. With question period finished, reporters assembled around the door leading to the government lobby. Chuck Strahl, the Indian affairs minister, stepped out, heard his name called and headed up the nearby stairs. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Defence Minister Peter MacKay followed suit. One reporter waiting by the lobby door squawked chicken noises at those hiding inside. Only Labour Minister JeanPierre Blackburn paused long enough to take a question. And only then to offer this: “I think everything was answered in the House of Commons today. We think we are right about what we did and we’ll see what happens.”

It’s just that uncertainty that must worry the Prime Minister and delight the already ebullient opposition. M

John Geddes