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Purity in politics remains elusive, a century after Borden Add to ...

It was a while ago, 106 years to be exact, that the Conservative Party got serious about cleaning up politics. In 1907, Robert Borden, then the opposition leader, embarked on a “purity in politics” campaign. It was aimed at exposing malfeasance in the government of Wilfrid Laurier.

In the summer of that year, Borden – who became a much underrated prime minister – released his Halifax platform. It promised honest appropriation of public moneys, appointment of public officials by an independent commission, Senate reform, transparent electoral spending practices and an array of other salubrious changes.

It’s said that progress requires patience. A century on, most of the Halifax platform still awaits enactment.

If Borden is peering down on today’s Tories, what would he see? Last month, we had intergovernmental affairs minister Peter Penashue resign over allegations of improper campaign financing. Nonetheless, the Conservatives are allowing him to run again in a by-election in his Labrador riding.

In the past couple of months, we have seen several senators, mainly Conservatives, being audited for housing claims or travel expenses. In February, John Duncan stepped down as aboriginal affairs minister over a letter he wrote to the Tax Court two years ago. Before him, it was serial expense-account abuser Bev Oda who was compelled to resign.

This month, we learned that the Commissioner of Canada Elections has recommended, after 21 months of investigation, the laying of charges in connection with robocalls to voters in the Guelph riding in the 2011 election. Hundreds of complaints of misleading calls in other ridings are still being investigated. Also being probed for allegations of improper campaign financing is Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Maestro. And facing influence-peddling charges is Bruce Carson, a former senior adviser to the Prime Minister.

Last week, we learned that Elections Canada is recruiting as many as six new investigators to keep up with the heavy workload. The agency is being beefed up while the Parliamentary Budget Office, which was demanding strict accountability on the part of the government, is being watered down. An ad seeking a new budget officer reads like the government wants a peace negotiator.

Although the list of alleged transgressions is long, it constitutes only a small portion of the government’s overall record on ethics offences. The senators have attracted most of the recent publicity, but the worst news for the Tories may well be the recruiting of the additional investigators. It suggests, like the recommending of charges in Guelph, that things are getting serious.

Little could be more damaging than guilty findings on trying to game the electoral system. If Stephen Harper knows his history, he will know of the grief inflicted on many a long-standing government by abuse of power.

In the late 1950s, the Liberals’ long reign crashed following the authoritarian arrogance demonstrated by their repeated invocation of closure in the pipeline debate. The collapse in the 1980s of their next extended run was abetted by Pierre Trudeau’s 11th-hour patronage binge that compromised John Turner. Brian Mulroney’s Tories were damaged by his own folly in the Karlheinz Schreiber affair. The Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin Liberals suffered heavily as a result of the sponsorship scandal.

To escape a similar reckoning, the Harper government will need a good deal of luck. It must first face a Federal Court judge’s ruling, expected shortly, on a bid by voters to have election results thrown out in several ridings. In the Guelph riding, the recommendation for formal charges is likely to be acted on. Later, the full-scale Elections Canada report on abuses will be tabled. That’s the big one. If the Prime Minister senses that it’s deeply incriminatory, we may even see him call a snap election in advance of it.

A century after Robert Borden’s “purity in politics” campaign, not much has changed. The Halifax platform? It’s wormwood.

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