Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Deconstructing the Conservative defence today

Peter Van Loan's shaky performance in the House this afternoon was probably the best the Conservatives could muster given the optics of an RCMP raid on Conservative headquarters looming in the backdrop. But let's not be fooled by Harper and Van Loan's line of defence today. You know, the one Van Loan repeated like a nervous parrot to the effect that the in-and-out spending scandal is all a matter of a quaint disagreement over the interpretation of Elections Canada law between the Conservative party and Elections Canada. That because the Conservatives launched this lawsuit in federal court, it demonstrates that they have nothing to hide. Here are Harper and Van Loan from Question Period today:
Liberal Leader Stephane Dion asked: “What will it take for the Prime Minister to admit the Conservative Party broke the law?”

Mr. Harper called Mr. Dion's allegation “completely false.

The Conservative Party itself initiated the court action and obviously we will abide by whatever the courts decide but our legal position is rock solid."

Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan said the party has co-operated with Elections Canada and he doesn't understand why a search warrant was necessary.

"It's a question of a solid interpretation of the law as a result of the fact that we do follow Canada's election policy," Mr. Van Loan said.
Well, framing it as a civil dispute over the niceties of legal interpretation is one way of looking at it. The other way - which I will choose - is to say that the Conservatives had no choice, on two fronts.

First, they had to initiate the lawsuit as a matter of political survival. If they did not challenge Elections Canada in court over the law's interpretation with respect to the Conservative in-and-out scheme, the penalties for overspending would have applied to the Conservative party. Without this lawsuit, the Conservatives would be in violation of the nation's election laws on spending. Elections Canada had found the scheme to be improper and had disallowed Conservative candidates from claiming back expenses at the local level because it deemed the advertising in question to be national spending. So the Conservatives had to fight it out in court, otherwise, they were liable to be prosecuted. As the Globe wrote:
This is no petty matter. The Canada Elections Act specifically forbids any attempt to circumvent the rules against exceeding limits on campaign spending. Depending on whether an offence was voluntary or not, a party's chief agent could face a fine of up to $5,000 or a jail sentence of up to five years, or both.

The mere possibility of prosecution is a setback for the Conservatives, who promised to do better.
Election-financing rules are not made to be conveniently thwarted. Too clever by half is not clever at all.
So that's a major consideration that's driven this lawsuit by the Conservatives. They were in a presumptively default position, as decided by Elections Canada. They were in the hole, so to speak. It's not as altruistic as Mr. Van Loan would have you believe today. He even tried to argue that the lawsuit was actually to the benefit of the opposition parties as well, as they undertake some of the same activities. Sorry, Petey, not buying that inventive stretch.

The second reason for the Conservatives having taken Elections Canada to court would be a matter of political strategy. To draw the issue out during the life of what they had expected to be a brief minority government. They assumed that if they buried the matter in court, it would never come to fruition during a typical minority government's tenure. If the lawsuit turned out negatively, it likely wouldn't occur until they had their majority. That's what their likely calculations were. So, keep those points in mind as you hear the spin from the likes of Harper and Van Loan today.

It's also worth remembering that it was Conservative candidates themselves who have provided the evidence of the Conservatives' questionable election spending practices from the 2006 election. The evidence was quite compelling and Elections Canada, on that basis, zeroed in on the Conservative in-and-out funds and came to the conclusion that the federal party had vastly overspent in the 2006 federal election. That's huge for our democracy. That's not playing by the rules. And that's why the Conservatives had to go to court to bury the story.