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BLAST FROM THE PAST: And then it got worse.


 

Note to readers: For some reason, while watching Question Period this afternoon, I suddenly had the urge to repost this. I blame Peter Van Loan:

ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 13, 2007

How the Conservatives used veiled voting to distract the easily confused opposition

For those of you who weren’t able to make Tuesday’s meeting of the
House Committee on Procedure and House Affairs – which has somehow
found itself at the nexus of not one but two off-season political
controversies – a mini-recap of the surprisingly dramatic proceedings.

First, a little background.

Last week, committee chair Gary Goodyear was forced to convene an
emergency meeting to consider a full-scale probe into allegations the
Conservatives had engaged in illicit financial shenanigans during the
last election – namely, transferring money from the national campaign
to riding candidates, ostensibly to pay for local advertising. Although
the party defends the practice as being entirely legal, Elections
Canada is currently investigating the matter.

Around the same time this was beginning to make news, Elections Canada
head honcho Marc Mayrand was asked by a Quebec radio reporter whether
Muslim women who wear veils would be required to show their faces when
voting in three federal by-elections taking place in the province next
week. No, was Mayrand’s response; the current law does not require a
voter to present photo ID.

The reaction was immediate and unequivocal. The Prime Minister accused
Mayrand of flouting the will of Parliament, finding himself in rare
agreement with the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois.

When the committee meeting got underway Monday morning, the government
initiated a motion calling on Mayrand to reverse his ruling. Suspecting
a Conservatives plot to keep the committee arguing about veils instead
of discussing the financing scandal, the opposition voted unanimously
in favour.

(Unfortunately, they apparently didn’t read the motion before voting.
Like the gun in the first act that goes off in the third, this will be
important later.)

In theory, that should have been the end of the veil-abuster. Having
addressed the hidden menace of veiled voters, the committee would
conceivably now be able to debate the campaign spending scandal. But by
Tuesday afternoon, what once seemed an issue so cut and dry not even
the New Democrats would take the opposite view, had become considerably
less so.

As for the Chief Electoral Officer, he responded to Monday’s salvo with
a polite, yet firm refusal to reconsider. He also offered to come
before the committee to explain – once again – what the law actually
is, as opposed to what the same MPs who voted for it in the House think
it ought to be.

But before any of the three opposition parties could start wriggling
out of unanimity on veiled voting, Pierre Poilievre – the
Conservatives’ designated committee hitman – popped up with a
suggestion. Instead of concentrating their efforts on allegations that
the Conservative Party engaged in “systemic fraud,” he said, why not
broaden the terms of reference? Why not, in fact, include the campaign
spending of all four parties for every federal election since 1997?

In his best high school debate club style, Poilievre assured members
his party wasn’t trying to shut down the probe – far from it. Indeed,
they just want to make it more thorough. After all, wasn’t it the
Liberals who were involved in a little something called the sponsorship
scandal? And what about the mysterious $40 million that Justice Gomery
wasn’t able to track down? Could it be lurking somewhere in the fine
print of Liberal records? Who, other than the Liberals on the
committee, could disagree with that, he wondered.

It was a new variant on a tactic that has proved remarkably effective
for the government in the past: the old divide and conquer. This time,
though, nobody on the other side of the table seemed to be buying it –
even New Democrat Pat Martin, who Poilievre singled out for special
mention in the cause of federal accountability.

When it became clear his entreaties were falling on deaf ears, he
turned on his erstwhile allies like a jilted suitor, accusing the
parties of colluding in a conspiracy of silence. It was, actually, kind
of entertaining, like putting Oliver Stone in a room with nothing but
CPAC for inspiration. At times, Poilievre’s knack for political
melodrama had much of the room howling with laughter. Even he joined
in, although it wasn’t clear whether he was in on the joke or actually
was the joke.

Though Poilievre’s proposed amendment went down to predictable and
ignominious defeat, it was the Conservatives who triumphed in the end.
Remember that part about not reading the motion? As it turns out, the
opposition parties hadn’t only signed on to the request Mayrand rethink
the issue. If they had bothered to read the whole motion, rather than
skimming the first few lines, they would have realized that Mayrand’s
refusal would trigger immediate hearings into the issue of veiled
voting, in order to produce a full report on the issue by Monday, when
the by-elections are scheduled to take place. The committee will hold
all day meetings on Thursday, beginning with Mayrand, and then moving
on to hear from various groups that have expressed an interest in the
matter.

As for the financing probe, it gets pushed to the back burner until the
veil report is complete, which will probably be right around the same
moment that Parliament – and therefore the committee – will cease to
exist, thanks to prorogation. After the Speech from the Throne in
October, the opposition can take another kick at the can, if the story
hasn’t fallen dormant by then.

Either way, a word of advice to all committee members, in order to
spare themselves – and the country – this kind of frustration in the
future: Read twice, vote once, whether it is a seemingly innocuous
committee motion or a two-inch thick set of amendments to the country’s
voting laws.


 

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