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What’s really at stake in the Etobicoke hearing? Trust

For anyone interested in politics, the arguments before the Supreme Court Tuesday on whether it should order a new election for Etobicoke Centre were compelling.

Yet it was difficult to avoid a sickening feeling. Elections in democracies are based, not just on rules, but on trust. As politics at the federal level becomes more and more bare-knuckle, trust is disappearing. That, really, was why the judges were forced to interrupt their holiday.

Lawyer Kent Thomson, representing Conservative MP Ted Opitz, wants the Court to overturn a lower court's decision ordering a by-election for the suburban Toronto riding.

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Mr. Opitz defeated Liberal candidate Borys Wrzesnewskyj by 26 votes. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj, arguing that some votes were improperly cast, went to court. There were sufficient irregularities for the lower-court judge to order a by-election.

But some of those votes could have been cast, to cite one example, by residents of a senior citizen's homes whose identity may have been vouched for by staff at the residence, a technical violation at worst.

If every close election becomes a legal battleground "the result is something none of us will be proud of," Mr. Thomson warned. The Court "will be very busy...from here to eternity." Florida 2000, over and over again.

But the Election Act must be upheld, Gavin Tighe responded on behalf of Mr. Wrzesnewskyj. There were too many votes cast without proper, or any, documentation. "It's the rules which distinguish Canada," from places like Afghanistan, he maintained. "It's the rules that give the system integrity."

The Court is expected to decide shortly. But that decision won't address the implicit allegation: Are Etobicoke Centre and the Robocall affair of a piece? Did the Tories commit fraud to win the 2011 election?

The party has a well-deserved reputation for playing electoral hardball. More than once it has run afoul of Elections Canada. It was convicted of illegally funnelling money in and out of ridings in the 2006 election. Elections Canada is investigating alleged "robocalls" that sent Liberal voters to nonexistent polling stations in Guelph, and perhaps other ridings, last time out. (The Conservatives are emphatic that they neither knew of nor authorized any such thing.)

There is absolutely no evidence that any Tory operative sent anyone into Etobicoke Centre, a hotly contested riding, to cast ballots they weren't entitled to. Such allegations were never raised at the hearing. But that doesn't stop critics from making the link.

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"It has become clear to many Canadians that our democracy was tested and perhaps undermined during the last election," Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae stated when the original decision came down. "Reports and allegations of election fraud are widespread and there are many cases still under investigation. This has cast serious doubts on the integrity of our electoral system."

Others were even blunter. "Robogate has focused on subtraction or voter suppression – votes that never made it to the ballot box," Michael Harris wrote at "But what if there was voter addition – votes that got there the same way that stuffing gets into a turkey?"

To some extent, the Conservatives have brought such allegation on themselves. But it is also true that many of their opponents simply can't accept that this government is legitimate.

Conservatives – especially Conservatives as red-meat as the Harper government – are attacked in the way no Liberal government is ever attacked: as usurpers, as wreckers. They don't belong. They're only in power because of dirty tricks: vicious attack ads, below-the-belt campaign tactics, maybe even ballot-stuffing.

If we don't trust Elections Canada to do its job, if people don't believe our political parties at least try to stay within the law, if we no longer accept that our elections are free and fair, then we imperil the social contract that binds a free society together.

Then everyone loses, no matter what they believe or whom they support. This is a very dangerous game that partisans on both sides are playing.

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