A Conservative MP whose election was overturned due to numerous voting irregularities is being sent as part of a Canadian observer mission charged with ensuring free and fair elections in Ukraine.
And while Ted Opitz will be part of the mission, at least two former Liberal cabinet ministers have been given the boot.
The makeup of the mission is sparking accusations that the Conservative government is compromising Canada’s international reputation by injecting domestic partisan politics into its staffing of the 500-member team.
However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is defending Mr. Opitz’s involvement and the overall composition of the mission.
“Our government, and especially MP Ted Opitz, stands strong as a supporter of the Ukrainian people as they seek to build a nation based on democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law,” Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said in an e-mail.
“This will be an all-party delegation that is reflective of Canada’s care and concern for free and fair elections in Ukraine.”
Most observers depart Ottawa on Saturday to monitor Ukraine’s Oct. 28 election – a campaign itself marred by corruption charges against the ruling Russian-leaning party.
The selection of Mr. Opitz is drawing particular criticism because of the uncertainty that lingers over his own election victory.
The Supreme Court of Canada is to decide whether Mr. Opitz was the actual winner of the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre in the 2011 federal election over Liberal incumbent Borys Wrzesnewskyj.
Mr. Opitz is appealing a decision by an Ontario Superior Court judge who threw out 79 ballots due to procedural irregularities, nullifying the MP’s narrow 26-vote victory.
If the Supreme Court denies Mr. Opitz’s appeal, he would have to square off against Mr. Wrzesnewskyj in a by-election in Etobicoke Centre, which has a large Ukrainian-Canadian population. The top court heard the landmark case in early July and is expected to rule on it soon, conceivably while Mr. Opitz is in Ukraine.
While the court case focused on procedural snafus, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj has made more serious charges, backed up by affidavits sworn by Elections Canada officials, of voter suppression and intimidation by members of Mr. Opitz’s campaign team.
None of those allegations has been proven in court.
Mr. Opitz played a prominent role last August when Immigration Minister Jason Kenney – the government’s political point man on wooing ethnic communities – chose the riding next door to Etobicoke Centre to announce the mission.
Meanwhile, former Liberal cabinet ministers Elinor Caplan and David Anderson both received telephone calls earlier this month from Canadem – the independent agency that recruits observers for the federal government – telling them they didn’t make the cut as election monitors.
“You don’t need to be a genius to figure this out,” Ms. Caplan said in an interview. “Obviously, this is seen as very political by the government.”
Ms. Caplan, who served as an observer in Belarus and has taken United Nations courses on election monitoring, said she was asked by Canadem to apply. She did and was notified that she was “good to go,” other than the formality of having the minister sign off on her involvement.
Then over the Thanksgiving weekend, Canadem left a message on her home phone advising her that “at the direction of the government of Canada, we’ve been directed to remove you from the delegation.”
She said it appears the government is bumping Liberals while “doing what they can to keep (Opitz) front and centre” with his Ukrainian-Canadian constituents in case he winds up having to fight a byelection.
“It’s a pity because, you know, it tarnishes Canada’s international reputation ... if the message is we’re sending over a partisan, highly unbalanced (delegation) or there are political reasons for who gets selected.”
Mr. Anderson received a similar telephone call on the same weekend, and was told he was off the team. He said he has questions, given that he’s very familiar with the practices and policies of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a recognized leader in international monitoring.
“I’m happy to apply for these things. But if I’m always going to get blackballed, I’d like to know that too. Whether it’s my age, my politics, the colour of my eyes.”
As for Mr. Opitz taking part in the mission, Mr. Anderson said: “It’s a curious choice, given the controversy surrounding his election.”
Taras Zalusky, the mission’s chief of staff, said the selection process “was exactly the same” for this mission as it was when Ms. Caplan and Mr. Anderson were in cabinet.