“The Conservative Party of Canada ran a clean and ethical campaign and it was not involved in any voter suppression.”– Foreign Minister John Baird, Nov. 2.
Never mind for a moment that bit of electoral jousting happening to the south. Canada’s own national election campaign, the one we held last year, is back in the news.
Cabinet minister Peter Penashue’s head could be on the chopping block due to allegations of overspending and other abuses in the 2011 campaign. Meanwhile, the robocalls controversy has re-emerged, with a main figure in the drama describing the calls as a “massive scheme.”
But to hear Mr. Baird (and colleague Pierre Poilievre) tell it in the Commons on Friday, everything is on the up and up. Their responses to opposition questioning would have us believe that allegations of sleaze from last year’s election are the stuff of imagination.
The “massive scheme” allegation came last week in an interview the CBC’s Evan Solomon conducted with Michael Sona, a former Conservative operative in the riding of Guelph (Ont.) that figures prominently in the Elections Canada robocalls probe. Conservatives have portrayed him as a prime suspect in the placing of phony calls misdirecting voters to wrong polling stations.
He has been silent, but now, after months of being portrayed as the fall guy, he has done something few of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have had the guts to do: spoken out.
“You’ve got to take a look at the options and just say, you know what, what is the more realistic option? That some then-22 year-old guy managed to co-ordinate this entire massive scheme when he didn’t even have access to the data to be able to do this – or the alternative, that this was much more co-ordinated,” he told Mr. Solomon.
Senior Conservatives have denied any involvement and portrayed the abuses as limited to one or two ridings. The Elections Canada probe is investigating hundreds of reports of vote suppression tactics in a large number of ridings. If there was a widespread centrally co-ordinated effort aimed at vote-rigging, it would constitute one of the biggest political scandals the country has seen. But proof is far from being established.
Indeed, the only MP to be officially nailed thus far is the Liberal who won in Guelph, Frank Valeriote, who was fined for anonymously putting out a robocall message attacking his opponent’s position on abortion. Mr. Baird, while boasting about his party’s clean campaign, was quick to point this out when the interview with Mr. Sona was raised in the Commons.
The other 2011 campaign issue is that of Mr. Penashue, who is Mr. Harper’s Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. He is alleged to have accepted corporate donations and free flights, in contravention of Elections Canada rules. In the interests of accountability, one would think Mr. Penashue would explain to Canadians what happened. But as has often been the case when a Harper minister has gotten in trouble – think of Bev Oda, Tony Clement, Dean Del Maestro – he’s been silenced. Others are always ordered to stand and dodge the questions. It’s the Conservatives’ idea of accountability.
In Mr. Penashue’s case, it was Mr. Baird who blustered through the response, heaping abuse on the New Democrats for daring to put the question forward considering that the NDP has itself been ordered to return union campaign donations.
The 2011 election was the one triggered when Mr. Harper’s government was found in contempt of Parliament. There were the vote suppression allegations, Mr. Sona’s statement and Mr. Penashue’s case. There were people thrown out of Conservative rallies because they were suspected of having ties to other parties, there were the personal attack ads, there was the bogus attempt to paint Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner.
Thus far, the damage has been contained. Party members, content to play the role of windup dolls, have remained silent. It’s why the words of Mr. Sona, an exception, have them worried.