The Commons: The Prime Minister tries to bluster it all away

How dare the opposition question the government’s commitment to democracy?
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday February 28, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The Scene. The Prime Minister was full of indignation. All of it righteous in quality.

He chopped and swiped with his hand. He pumped his fist and jabbed his finger. He raised his voice and he scolded and he challenged and he dismissed. How dare the NDP, they who once propagated a phone campaign that directed disenchanted voters to call Lise St. Denis’s office, accuse him of wrongdoing. Who were they to stand here and challenge him? And with what evidence exactly? And the Liberals, they having recently employed someone who posted to Twitter excerpts of the Public Safety Minister’s divorce proceedings—perhaps they might just go ahead and apologize to the government for suggesting anything untoward.

It was a fine show. All the more so when delivered by the leader of a party that pleaded guilty three-and-a-half months ago to violating the Elections Act.

Perhaps buoyed by Mr. Harper’s bullishness, Pierre Poilievre decided to get cheeky. Noting that the NDP’s Alexandre Boulerice had asked about automated calls, Mr. Poilievre suggested that if the member had evidence he could press 1. If he wished to apologize, he could press 2. And if he had the wrong number, he could hang up and try his call again.

The Conservatives were gleeful about this, many of them leaping up to applaud, several of them grinning as if they’d just been presented with a new bike for Christmas.

Alas, it was then that the moment shifted.

“Mr. Speaker,” Charlie Angus sighed with the opposition’s next opportunity, “there we have a party that thinks that electoral fraud is a joke.”

The Conservatives howled.

“Mr. Speaker, we can see their attitude,” Mr. Angus continued, “their contempt for the Canadian people.”

The Conservatives had been making grand gestures of calling for the opposition parties to produce evidence. Mr. Angus was now ready to oblige.

“Let us talk about evidence that we have already brought forward to Elections Canada. We will show them ours if they will show us theirs,” he chided the government. “780-665-2272 is the number that called into Edmonton East, people pretending to be from Elections Canada and who gave misleading messages and pro-Conservative messages. That is a crime. That is electoral fraud. Do the Conservatives not want to know who did it? We brought forward our evidence. Who over there knows who was involved in this electoral fraud in Edmonton East?”

The closest the Conservatives could come to explaining that was this, committed to the record by Dean Del Mastro: “Mr. Speaker, during the recent election, Elections Canada has confirmed that at least 127 polling stations were changed, affecting as many as 1,000 polls.”

This perhaps explains something, but it does not seem to explain whatever happened in Edmonton East—that riding not appearing on Elections Canada’s list of ridings where changes in polling stations took place.

David Christopherson rose to report on recent happenings at the Procedure and House Affairs committee. “Mr. Speaker, the procedure and House Affairs committee just finished reviewing the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendations from the 2008 election,” he explained. “He asked that Elections Canada be given the power to demand any documentation from any political party he deemed necessary to verify their compliance with the law. We agreed. The Conservatives did not. How can Conservatives claim they want specific evidence brought forward when it suits them, then vote against giving the Chief Electoral Officer the very power he needs to demand specific evidence be brought forward?”

Mr. Del Mastro stood and offered that “of course Elections Canada has the full investigative ability and authority to look into these or other matters” and that the opposition should turn over its evidence.

Mr. Christopherson stood and suggested that this did not actually answer his question.

A short while later, the Speaker called on Irwin Cotler. “Mr. Speaker, I represent the riding of Mount Royal that was targeted with false and misleading ten percenters before the election that the Speaker characterized as a breach of privilege. It was targeted again with these flyers along with false and misleading calls during the election. It was targeted with calls and misleading calls about my impending resignation after the election which was characterized as a reprehensible act,” Mr. Cotler recounted. “This is not about the absence of evidence, but about the absence of responsibility. Will the government do the honourable and responsible thing and apologize for this pattern of reprehensible acts in my riding and against the integrity of the House?”

Mr. Del Mastro stood and begged for everyone’s cognitive dissonance. “Mr. Speaker, the Conservative Party of Canada does not place intentionally misleading calls to voters,” he ventured. “We simply do not.”

Next up Frank Valeriote, who spoke of frustration and confusion in his riding of Guelph. Mr. Del Mastro stood and denied it was anything to do with his side. “Mr. Speaker,” he declared, “the Conservative Party of Canada denies any involvement in Guelph whatsoever with the matter that the member spoke of.”

But now Bob Rae was getting up for a rare appearance this late in the hour. “Mr. Speaker, I have just learned that a court document has been produced from the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections saying that there were 31 phone calls between the Conservative campaign in Guelph and RackNine and that there were 40 calls between Conservative operatives in Ottawa and RackNine,” he reported. “Can the government explain that information in conjunction with the statement that was just made by the parliamentary secretary?”

Mr. Del Mastro stood, but he was perhaps not quite ready for this development. “With respect to the question the member has just asked, he knows he is not being transparent in his question. He is trying to mix apples and oranges here,” Mr. Del Mastro managed, perhaps reasonably. “Were there calls between RackNine and members? Sure, there may have been, but the member knows full well that the matter with Guelph is entirely separate. The Conservative Party is co-operating with Elections Canada in that matter and will continue to do so.”

The Prime Minister managed to clap when Mr. Del Mastro was done, but otherwise he kept his head down, busying himself with his paperwork.

The Stats. Ethics, 24 questions. Crime, three questions. Immigration, employment and the environment, two questions each. Trade, aerospace, bilingualism, science, Rights & Democracy and the seal hunt, one question each.

Dean Del Mastro, nine answers. Stephen Harper and Pierre Poilievre, six answers each. Diane Finley, five answers. Rob Nicholson, Jason Kenney, Christian Paradis and Ed Fast, two answers each. Garry Goodyear, John Baird, Joe Oliver and Vic Toews, one answer each.