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lawrence martin

"The jackasses at Elections Canada are out of control."

In 2001, Stephen Harper was president of the National Citizens Coalition. That was his opening line in a fundraising letter.

His loathing for the election overseers was almost pathological, recalls Gerry Nicholls, the conservative commentator who worked with Mr. Harper at the NCC. It was a "blood feud," he says, one that appears to be "never ending."

But Mr. Harper had good reason, in Mr. Nicholls's view, for his contempt. Rather than neutral public servants, the Elections Canada apparatchiks, then led by Jean-Pierre Kingsley, were "the epitome of bureaucratic evil," with leftist axes to grind.

Mr. Harper's wars with the ballot bureaucrats at Elections Canada while he was at the NCC were only the beginning. Some of his top men were charged with manipulating campaign finance rules during the 2006 election in what became known as the "in and out" spending scandal.

Now, Elections Canada officials are looking into thousands of complaints about harassing and misleading phone calls made during the 2011 election campaign in which voters were directed to the wrong polling stations. Conservatives deny any wrongdoing, but the robo-call investigation is targeting them and it can hardly be comforting to Mr. Harper that Elections Canada is running it.

The "jackasses" letter that Mr. Harper wrote is intriguing in many ways. What had him incensed was a law that banned Canadians from transmitting real-time election results, the purpose being to prevent voters in one region from learning the results in another before voting.

Mr. Harper was taking up the cause of a B.C. man, Paul Bryan, who had been charged with violating the law after posting Atlantic Canada results on his website in the 2000 election before the polls closed in other parts of the country. Mr. Harper argued that, in the age of the Internet, the Elections Canada ban made no sense. Mr. Bryan's only offence, he wrote, was to believe in freedom of speech at election time.

But Mr. Harper's words have a rather peculiar ring today. Elections Canada bureaucrats went after Mr. Bryan, he said in his letter, "to establish the precedent of government control of the Internet. … The implications are very ominous, very scary." And yet, his own government recently tried to introduce Internet surveillance legislation, only to be thwarted by a public backlash.

"Iron-fisted bully tactics have no place in a free and democratic society," Mr. Harper wrote, in reference to Mr. Kingsley. "Information is power. The less control the government has over the flow of information, the less control it can exert over its citizens. … We cannot allow the government to dictate what information we can and cannot publish."

Ironically, on information flows, the Harper government is widely viewed as one of Canada's most restrictive. Just last week, the journal Nature accused the government of muzzling the science community.

The battles against gag laws by Mr. Harper, who recently lifted the law on the broadcasting of election results, cost the Citizens Coalition more than $1-million in legal fees. In respect to the "in and out" scheme, the RCMP raided Conservative offices in 2008, and the party sued Elections Canada. Ultimately, the party pleaded guilty to overspending during the 2006 campaign.

In his 2001 letter, Mr. Harper accused Elections Canada of being "out of control." The question today, as the robo-call scandal continues, is whether it's his own party members who are out of control.