Thomas Mulcair is perhaps not ever truly lost for words, but he claimed to be yesterday afternoon when a man from the national wire service asked him about the minister of democratic reform.
“You know, I’ll tell you sincerely, because I’ve been at this for quite a while, I often have at least an opinion, if not the truth about the detail, but I can have an opinion of what I’m seeing,” he began. “I honestly am at a loss to explain what Prime Minister Harper is up to with Pierre Poilievre because I don’t believe for a second that it’s an accident that he was sent to the Senate today to say the types of crazy things that he said about Marc Mayrand. So there’s something going on that frankly eludes me, and it’s not false modesty. I simply don’t understand what they’re up to … this sort of ad hominem attack against Marc Mayrand, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, that’s totally baseless, and frankly, cowardly, I don’t understand what the Prime Minister’s doing sending Pierre Poilievre in to do that.”
It is tempting to believe Mr. Mulcair is being honest when he says he is honestly at a loss. If only because it is not entirely obvious why, except perhaps in the most troubling of circumstances, it would be in anyone’s interest to be heard commenting unflatteringly about the chief electoral officer’s motivations.
Yesterday morning, the minister of democratic reform took a seat before a committee of senators and ventured that the chief electoral officer would never support his legislation. Why? Well, because, in Mr. Poilievre estimation, Mr. Mayrand “wants more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.”
Mr. Poilievre proceeded to enunciate his objections to Mr. Mayrand’s recommendations. The chief electoral officer’s desire for the power to compel disclosure from political parties could imperil the privacy of individuals who have told party of their voting intentions. Of Mr. Mayrand’s suggestion that Elections Canada should have the power to compel testimony, Mr. Poilievre argued that police are able to secure convictions without such a power and “if Elections Canada cannot do the same, perhaps that says something about the cases being investigated rather than the powers of the investigator.” Of Mr. Mayrand’s suggestion that moving the elections commissioner to a different office, Mr. Poilievre said Mr. Mayrand was “fighting to retain this power, making some incredible claims and inventing some novel legal principles to do it.” Of questions about the independence of the director of public prosecutions, Mr. Poilievre said Elections Canada “has reversed itself on this point only now that its CEO is fighting to retain his personal control over the investigative function” and Mr. Mayrand is “is doing this by having spokespeople cast doubt on the independence of that office.” Furthermore, Mr. Poilievre testified, “it has come to light that some witnesses who have appeared at the House committee are paid by Elections Canada” and it was apparently for Mr. Mayrand to “proactively provide both House and Senate committee members with information on all of the witnesses who have received financial payments from his agency.”
And so the government of the day, specifically the minister responsible for reforming our federal electoral laws, is now not merely in disagreement with the federal electoral agency and its chief officer over how our elections should be conducted—an awkward enough situation as it is—but rather the government is openly critical and suspicious of the chief electoral officer’s motivations. That Mr. Poilievre or this government or the Conservative party might generally be suspicious of the electoral agency is perhaps not a surprise. That Mr. Poilievre, as a cabinet minister, would appear before a Senate committee and convey his suspicions without prompting is perhaps something else entirely.
If we are to now doubt Mr. Mayrand, we might add him to the list of the Prime Minister’s questionable appointments—just another individual, like Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin or Nigel Wright, who Mr. Harper must regret putting in a position of power. So much for the “strong and energetic manager with a proven background in operations and regulatory oversight” who was “particularly well-suited to take on this important position.” Add Kevin Page (“a fine choice to fill this position“) and you’ve got the makings of a wonderful dinner party.
Other than that, what might be said to have been accomplished yesterday? We might ask the same question of the last two months.
Opposite Mr. Poilievre with various concerns about his legislation are all of the chief electoral officer, the previous chief electoral officer, the elections commissioner, the chief electoral officers of Ontario, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, a former electoral officer whose study of the electoral process forms the basis of the government’s defence for one contentions portion of the bill, the former auditor general, the former chair of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, seniors groups, student groups, aboriginal groups, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and dozens of academics. Even if the government is somehow in the right on various points here, that is a formidable array of critics, probably of a depth and breadth that a government should not generally want to be seen fighting, except, of course, if the political algebra at play can somehow be added up to a few extra votes in 2015.
The official opposition has filibustered and fussed. Anecdotes have been traded, stay-at-home moms invoked, faulty analogies employed, metaphors repeated, wordplay attempted, conspiracies alleged, eye-witness testimony retracted, facts checked and comedians heralded. The government side has questioned whether some of those testifying have financial ties to Elections Canada. And while the minister has said he’s open to good ideas, he has offered no indication of if or how he might be willing to make allowances for his critics.
Did yesterday’s display possibly impress anyone? Might it have inspired the Conservative base? Could it have possibly aided the government’s cause? Does this somehow possibly set up a denouement that the Conservatives can be happy with? Is this all so much noise that is barely heard beyond this place and will be barely remembered a year from now? Has the government succeeded somehow over the last 60 days? Or has it merely provided its opponents with another outrage to point to?
A few hours after Mr. Poilievre’s appearance in front of the Senate committee, Mr. Mulcair would stand in the House and wonder whether the Prime Minister might apologize to the House and to Mr. Mayrand for the “cowardly, baseless attack” of Mr. Poilievre. (Mr. Harper would ignore the question and take the opportunity to congratulate the new premier of Quebec.) Later, Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux would stand and loudly and demonstrably accuse the minister of “verbally assaulting” the chief electoral officer. (Mr. Poilievre would stand and suggest that New Democrats and others were questioning the independence of the director of public prosecutions and that this was “outrageous.”)
Hours after that, in primetime, Sheila Fraser, the sainted former auditor general, would take a seat in a committee room buried several floors beneath Wellington Street, just over the canal from Parliament Hill.
The thing about throwing a punch is that it leaves you vulnerable. Particularly in the midst of a brawl, when even if you connect with your target, you might provide an opportunity for someone standing nearby to deck you.
Whatever Ms. Fraser’s precise level of knowledge in the area of election law (she might not qualify as an expert) and whatever her ties to Elections Canada (she is co-chair of the chief electoral officer’s advisory council), she was welcomed to the committee by the NDP’s David Christopherson as “the most trusted Canadian in the country.” Mr. Christopherson then provoked her, wondering aloud about how she felt, herself a former officer of Parliament, about the treatment of Mr. Mayrand.
“Just your thoughts, madame,” Mr. Christopherson said after lamenting for the government’s attitude toward the chief electoral officer.
“Well, as I said in my opening remarks, the officers of Parliament really do play a very important role in our democracy,” she said, beginning simply enough. “We don’t take these jobs to win popularity contests. We do our work with objectivity. I know that there are certain audits that—I don’t quite know how to phrase it, but I was not on the Christmas card list of certain people after certain audits. But we do our work, we respect our mandates, we do it in an objective and a fair way.”
Now, the punch.
“And it troubles me greatly—I would say disturbs me greatly, to see comments that are made, and I will be quite blunt, by the minister, which he made today in committee, attacking personally the chief electoral officer. This serves none of us well. It undermines the credibility of these institutions. And at the end of the day, if this to continue, we will all pay, because no one will have faith in government or in chief electoral officers or our democratic system. And we can have differences of opinion and that’s what a democracy is for, is to be able to express freely our differences of opinion. The officers of Parliament should be able to come to Parliament explain issues that they see in proposed legislation. I’m sure, if the legislation goes through, the chief electoral officer will respect it and will follow it. But to actually attack him for bringing forward his concerns, I think, is totally inappropriate.”
And so now the Fair Elections Act is about all of that as well.
A few days ago, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, a member of that advisory council, but one whose conflict on that side is presumably offset by his caucus allegiance, suggested that “everybody should take a Valium.” Perhaps that’s the prescription, even if it now seems rather overdue.