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UPDATE – In and Out Inside Out: Liveblogging the Ethics committee


 

UPDATE THINGY: Instead of making this the longest post in the history of macleans.ca, I’m going to switch threads for the afternoon session, so click here for part two.

9:40:42 AM
Twenty minutes to go, and I’m already installed at the media table, having once again shown up early on the assumption that journalists would have slept in line outside the committee room overnight to secure a prime viewing spot, because I apparently haven’t yet figured out that not everyone gets as excited over committees as I do.

(Although this is likely to be a slightly better-attended session than the last meeting I covered, at which I was quite literally the only reporter there.)

Anyway, before they get started, a brief recap for anyone out there who hasn’t been following the story with as obsessive an eye as ITQ: The Ethics committee is about to kick off its long-awaited investigation into the so-called In and Out scandal, an ongoing battle between Elections Canada and the Conservative Party over whether the latter went over the advertising spending limit for advertising during the last election by funneling national ad buys through local campaigns. (For more background, check the FAQ here.)

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On the agenda today: Elections Canada itself, in the form of Chief Electoral Officer Mark Mayrand, who crossed swords at a special summer session last year during the Veiled Voting Debacle, otherwise known as “Don’t Get Kady Started On That” – this isn’t his first time at the rodeo.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been trying to summarize nine months of procedural wrangling and political games into a couple of introductory paragraph, the room has been filling up with MPs and spectators alike. On the committee front, most of the usual suspects are here – Russ Hiebert, Scott Reid, David Tilson for the Conservatives, and Carole Lavallee, Thomas Mulcair, Charlie Hubbard and assorted other Liberals for the opposition.

Mark Mayrand just arrived with his very own media circus in tow: it’s not his fault, the cameras ambushed him outside and followed him to his spot at the head of the table.

10:01:13 AM
Okay, now we’re officially late, but I’ll cut them some slack since the members are still circulating the room, chatting with spectators, reporters and even the witness himself, who appears entirely serene despite the fact that at least four of the people about to interrogate him are convinced that his organization is hopelessly biased against their party. (Hint: Not the Liberals, or the Bloc Quebecois, or the NDP.)

The clerk has obligingly provided us with copies of Mayrand’s presentation – which we may or may not get to hear before the lunch break – but just as I was about to skim through it, the meeting began.

10:05:18 AM
Paul Szabo lays out the plan for the day: first, Mayrand’s presentation, which will last about an hour, and then questions from the members for – the next eleven or so hours, I guess. Apparently, there has been “agreement” amongst members to deal with the Conservative motions after today’s testimony, which is – kind of surprising, actually. Did David Tilson agree to this? Was he lulled into a temporary state of uncrankiness by the warm summer breezes of — wherever it is he’s from? Because right now, he’s glowering furiously at everyone in sight.

10:10:21 AM
And now – Mark Mayrand! He starts out with a brief explanation of how he came to be testifying before the Ethics committee today before moving on to a brief history of electoral financing law, an area in which Canada, he says, is at the “forefront”. Somehow. I don’t think the Conservative contingent sees that as a particularly good thing.

10:13:40 AM
While Marc Mayrand explains the law of the land, a quick overview of the members who, either voluntarily or under orders from the whip, have trekked back to Ottawa for this week’s events: Pierre Poilievre, who is staring fixedly at the papers in front of him, chin firmly lodged in his hands; David Tilson, who is angrily fighting with his earpiece while consulting with a staffer; Russ Hiebert, tapping purposefully away on his laptop, and Gary Goodyear, who ran afoul of Elections Canada himself last year after an unfortunate misunderstanding of the rules governing non-monetary donations.

On the other side of the table sits a very, very serious Pat Martin, flanked by Thomas Mulcair; it’s not clear which of the two will be questioning Mayrand on behalf of the NDP. Only one can be signed in at the same time, since the NDP only has one spot on the committee.

On the other side of Mulcair, Carole Lavallee listens carefully to Mayrand — who is explaining what, exactly, constitutes an election expense under the law; Karen Redmond – another Procedure and House Affairs alum, incidentally – is taking notes the oldfashioned way, with a pen. Dominic LeBlanc seems fascinated by the somewhat labourious detailing of the various kinds of expenses covered by the Elections Act — we’re up to “commercial value” now, and no, none of this will be on the final exam. Due to the layout of the committee table, I can’t actually see the other two Liberals – Sukh Dhaliwal and Charles Hubbard, who moved the motion responsible for bringing us here today – but I’m sure they, too, are riveted.

10:25:56 AM
I wonder if all this discussion about candidates and reporting expenses and official agents is making Gary Goodyear uncomfortable. It wasn’t his fault – at least, not according to the final agreement between his campaign and Elections Canada – but this still has to hit a little bit close to home.
10:27:32 AM
Ooh, I just noticed that one of the mound of documents provided by the clerk includes the definitive list of public office holders whose campaigns have been ensnarled in the controversy: Jim Abbott; David “Not the former Liberal” Anderson; Maxime Bernier; Sylvie Boucher; Lawrence Cannon; Stockwell Day; Jacques Gourde; Jay Hill; Christian Paradis and Josee Verner.

10:30:07 AM
Okay, Mayrand seems to be getting to the good stuff, so I’ll start paying more than half attention to his testimony: expenses, he tells the committee earnestly, are not transferrable, although resources can be moved “freely” between entities.

10:32:27 AM
Apologies, y’all, for my first (but not last, I fear) spelling error of the day: It’s Karen Redman, not Redmond. Hey, at least I’ve finally gotten “Mayrand” down cold; during the debacle, I spent a lot of time mixing up the R and the Y.

10:37:20 AM
To be eligible for the debate, a candidate has to receive at least 10% of the votes in a riding, and the candidate returns are examined by Elections Canada officials.

Meanwhile, off camera, there is much to-ing and fro-ing and generally conspiratorial behaviour on the opposition side of the room; the Conservative staffers, meanwhile, look bored, but resigned to their fate. C’mon, guys, where’s your in and out spirit?

Did I mention Ryan Sparrow is here? He is, but he’s being very, very low-key. So much so that I actually forgot to mention that he was here until now. Sorry, Ryan.

10:41:55 AM
Mayrand suddenly has everyone’s full attention as he points out that violations of the election laws could result in criminal charges.

10:43:42 AM
Did I mention that an unnamed committee staffer tried to get me to move my trademark can of Red Bull out of the camera frame? Seriously. Apparently, some MPs have complained in the past about Tim Hortons cups and other identifiable products. Apparently, some MPs have way too much time on their hands.

The Red Bull stayed, by the way.

10:49:17 AM
Elections Canada doesn’t take a fine-toothed comb to every single document filed as part of a return, Mayrand tells the committee – it usually takes some sort of red flag, like expenses that are approaching the limit, or questions “not adequately answered.”
10:51:07 AM
I just this minute got around to reading Mayrand’s opening remarks, and it seems that he’s not going to discuss ongoing investigations or individual cases. I’m not sure what that does as far as the various lines of questioning that the parties we’re hoping to pursue; it means he won’t be able to go into detail about the events that led to the raid on Tory headquarters, but it would also make it difficult for the Conservatives to go on the offensive. At least as far as implying that Elections Canada is out to get the Conservative party.

10:55:16 AM
Okay, Mayrand appears to be winding down: he’s gotten all the way to the appointment of the Commissioner of Elections – who is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer – and explaining the difference between the two offices — the CEO has the power to refer files to the COE – man, those acronyms could be a little more distinct -, but it is ultimately up to the COE to decide which alleged violations he (or she) will investigate, collect evidence, determine “suitable enforcement action” and all that stuff.

11:01:14 AM
With that, Mayrand finishes his first presentation; the chair offers to give the committee a five minute break, but a Conservative – I couldn’t tell which one – snaps that they’re “here to work.”

11:02:38 AM
I don’t want to alarm anyone unnecessarily, but it appears that David Tilson is cranky. Why? It’s not clear, actually – something about the fact that Mayrand planned to give three separate presentations, rather than do the whole thing at once. He has “papers coming out of his ears,” apparently.

11:06:54 AM
Score one for the forces of crankiness: Mayrand agrees to go straight into the next part of his presentation, which deals specifically with the Conservatives’ regional buy program. Ooh, the good stuff. Not sure what the strategy is of getting all this out at the beginning, except – oh, of course. Limit him to one slot in the news cycle rather than letting him stretch it out over the full two days. I’m not sure that’ll work, but I’m not in charge of damage control. That would be Ryan Sparrow, who is sitting behind me.

11:10:25 AM
Mayrand discusses the factors – there was definitey more than one – that played into his decision not to reimburse the party for the ad buys.

11:12:33 AM
Looks like the Conservatives aren’t the only ones on the offensive — Mayrand just took on the “But every party does it; why is Elections Canada picking on us?” argument that Pierre Poilievre, among others, brings out so often. He asked the agency to look into that claim by examining all party returns for the last few election cycles. His conclusion? No, they don’t.

11:15:55 AM
Finally, on public office holders – which was to be the focus of the third and final part of his presentation, but he has been asked to deliver now – as requested by the committee, he has provided them with the dates on which election returns were filed by those public office holders that I listed earlier.

11:18:37 AM
Question Time!
Dominic LeBlanc is first at bat, and he asks Mayrand to confirm that the content of the ads plays no part in his decision to send the file to the Commissioner, which he does.

Next on the list: the difference between legitimate transfers between parties and candidates, and the expense claims by the In and Out candidates.

Mayrand explains once more why he disallowed those expenses; he simply wasn’t convinced that the ad buys were done on behalf of the candidate, and not the party.
Further questioning produces more of the same, really – Mayrand confirms that he found no evidence of similar schemes by other political parties, and dismisses the claim that Elections Canada had “changed the rules” by revising the manual.

Finally, he goes straight to the heart of the Conservative conspiracy theory on the infamous RCMP raid: Did the agency conduct a full review of the allegations of collusion with “a certain political party” and/or the media, and what was the conclusion?
Mayrand notes that the accusation was “very disturbing,” and tells the committee that he found no evidence of any such conduct.

11:30:04 AM
Scott Reid pounces: He wants the CEO to table the report that made the above findings; after some back and forth with Mayrand, who says that there was no formal report, he nevertheless agrees to provide whatever paperwork exists as far as the internal leak investigation.

11:32:19 AM
In her characteristically blunt style, Carole Lavallee asks whether these transfers were designed to allow the Conservative Party to skirt the law and exceed the spending limits, but Mayrand isn’t going to come out and say that – quite properly, since there is an ongoing investigation into precisely that allegation. “It’s an animal, it’s got black fur and it says ‘meow,’ but it’s not a cat?” Asks Lavallee, who just won the ITQ Awesome Metaphor of the Day.

11:41:56 AM
The NDP is up, which means it’s Pat Martin time! I guess Mulcair is just here for moral support. He gives a brief recap of why this matters – it looks like a “deliberate conspiracy” to evade the spending limits, he says, although he understands why Mayrand doesn’t want to say those words. Particularly disturbing to him are the allegations of falsified documentation – the invoices submitted by various candidates, including Stockwell Day, Maxime Bernier, Josee Verner.

It would seem that the Conservative Party was targeting candidates with “room” in their respective budgets to make these buys — has he spoken to any who refused to take part? That’s part of an investigation, notes Mayrand, so he can’t comment.

11:47:45 AM
Okay, this is weird: Mulcair has taken over the rest of the NDP’s allotted time, even though as far as I know, only one can be recognized at the time. The chair doesn’t seem fussed, anyway, and the Conservatives are too busy preparing for their first round of questioning, so I guess it’s not against the rules.

Mulcair wants to know exactly what happened on the day of the raid – why did the Liberal Party seemingly know about it before anyone else? Why didn’t anyone tip off the NDP?

Mayrand, who is beginning to sound a bit impatient with this line of questioning, points out that the RCMP/Elections Canada were actually on the scene two hours before the first Conservative party staffers showed up; he doesn’t know how the media got there, but the camera crews didn’t show up until well after the search was underway.

11:54:04 AM
Finally, Pierre Poilievre gets to deliver the preamble he’s been reciting in his head for the last two hours: Mayrand, he begins, failed to provide any new information, but he did product “new legal arguments” that Elections Canada could employ.

Eventually he gets to his first question: What is the difference between a local and a national advertisement? It has nothing to do with content, Mayrand assures him.

Poilievre tries to knock him off kilter by confronting him with testimony from another Elections Canada that, he claims, contradicts this position. Mayrand is unflustered, and demurs dealing with the specific statement, which would be more appropriately dealt with in the court case in which it was filed, but gives a basic explanation of how he would go about deciding whether an ad buy was local or national.

11:59:39 AM
Aha – now he’s got him! Or – wait, no, he doesn’t. Poilievre hauls out the Libby Davies file — anyone who has listened to him filibuster will need no further explanation; suffice it to say, it goes to the “They all do it too” defence. Mayrand once again attempts to explain the difference.

Poilievre moves to the raid — which at one point the Conservatives, rather adorably, referred to as a “visit” — and wants to know how many people at Elections Canada were aware of the scheduled raid. Three people, not counting the Commissioner’s office, he says. Poilievre grumbles, and wonders why Elections Canada is allowed to investigate itself, but the Conservatives — have to be investigated by Elections Canada? Is he seriously making that argument? Really truly?

12:03:58 PM
Pierre Poilievre hits Mayrand with his last, and most overreaching question: Why wasn’t the director of public prosecutions brought in to investigate the leak?

Well, maybe because he’s not an investigator – which is pretty much what Mayrand says, although in a slightly kinder way. I swear, there is not a single MP in the House who actually understands what the director of public prosecutions actualy does. Hint: NOT INVESTIGATE YOUR PET SCANDAL DU JOUR.

And on that note, we break for lunch – not a moment too soon, as I can feel myself going to the very bar low blood sugar place and nobody wants that. You think David Tilson is cranky? I’ll show you cranky, my friends.

Back at 2. Y’all have fun without me.

UPDATE THINGY: Instead of making this the longest post in the history of macleans.ca, I’m going to switch threads for the afternoon session, so click here for part two.


 

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