In the spring of 2005, his minority Liberal government reeling from revelations at Justice John Gomery’s inquiry into millions in misused federal sponsorship funds in Quebec, then-prime minister Paul Martin went on TV to plead his case. He pledged to call an election within 30 days of Gomery issuing his final report, and apologized to Canadians for not realizing public money was being misdirected until long after the fact. Stephen Harper, then leading the Conservatives in opposition, was scorching in his televised response. Harper accused Martin of “turning a blind eye to it all,” and spoke sweepingly of “Liberal corruption.” If Martin depicted the wrongdoing as serious, but limited, and his party as ready to make it right, Harper condemned Liberals in general, particularly in Quebec, as “tarnished beyond redemption.”
As the 2006 election proved, Martin’s containment strategy failed miserably, while Harper succeeded brilliantly in making all Liberals pay a heavy price for corruption among a tight-knit group of party players in Montreal. And that’s why the sponsorship affair is again on the minds of many political insiders as the so-called “robocalls” affair unfolds. This time, it’s Harper trying to put a scandal in quarantine, and the NDP and Liberals striving to make sure his whole Tory brand is infected. The main line of Conservative defence, after sounding confused in the affair’s early days, firmed up this week: any deceptive calling happened in the Ontario riding of Guelph only, and the party brass couldn’t have known about it. “The whole thing is a nightmare for the government,” said NDP MP David Christopherson. “Even if they are innocent, it’s a nightmare.”
Christopherson’s reasoning is that the government can’t avoid being badly damaged in the coming weeks, likely months, of Elections Canada’s investigation. During that stretch, Canadians will be left to draw their own conclusions about bogus phone calls placed in a bid to mislead voters during the 2011 election. Opposition MPs say their supporters in dozens of ridings were harassed or misled by messages plainly designed to help the Conservatives. Elections Canada is sifting through more than 30,000 complaints logged since the original story—involving automated messages falsely telling Guelph voters their polling location had changed—hit the news last month. That story’s basis is no longer much disputed. “I believe something was amiss in Guelph,” said Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer. “But outside of Guelph, I’m hopeful that what will happen is Elections Canada will render some sort of judgment, and I think it will show we had this right, we assessed it the right way, and we were helpful in getting to the bottom of it.”
That picture of full co-operation, however, is clouded by the Conservatives’ unhappy history with Elections Canada. In the spring of 2008, the RCMP raided Tory offices in downtown Ottawa on behalf of Elections Canada to seize documents the party had declined to turn over voluntarily. That investigation was into how the Conservatives moved money between national and local campaigns during the 2006 election. In what became known as the “in-and-out” affair, the party finally pleaded guilty last fall to overspending, and paid a $52,000 fine. But Elections Canada and the Conservatives were still locked in a related legal battle over campaign expense rebates, until last week when the Tories—facing a new urgency not to appear combative with the elections watchdog—dropped their appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, agreeing to pay back $230,198. A Conservative official insisted there’s no similarity between in-and-out and the robocalls case, in which the party supports Elections Canada’s efforts to “get to the bottom of it.”
Yet Conservatives have seemed generally reluctant to have Elections Canada watching too closely. After the 2008 election, chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand recommended key changes to his powers. Among other things, Mayrand asked for the right to compel parties to turn over documents to verify details on the post-election expense returns they are required to file. A House committee happened to report back on his recommendations just as the robocalls affair heated up. Liberal and NDP MPs on the committee supported Mayrand, but the committee’s Conservative majority voted down his request. “Do they have reason for not wanting the chief electoral officer to have those powers?” asked the NDP’s Christopherson. “Elections Canada is just trying to do its job,” added Liberal MP Marc Garneau. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.”
Lietaer, who ran the Conservative war room in the 2011 election, said misconceptions about how much his party’s national organization could possibly have known about local campaigns are distorting reaction to the robocalls story. “To think that we can approve every phone call going out of every campaign, it’s just not feasible,” he said. The Prime Minister’s Office echoed that position, clarifying Harper’s repeated assertions that his party is entirely blameless as referring only to its national operations, not local Tory campaigns. But since Lietaer and other Conservative officials said they don’t really know how local Tory campaigners behaved, it’s hard to see what grounds they have for concluding that fake calls were likely limited to Guelph.
Elections Canada is certainly casting a much wider net. Among complaints its investigators are reportedly probing are those involving a Thunder Bay, Ont., call centre used by the Conservatives, and deceptive calls reported in Nipissing-Timiskaming, a northern Ontario riding of special interest because the Conservatives ousted the Liberal MP there by a mere 18 votes. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Elections Canada’s chief electoral officer for 17 years before retiring in 2006, said his old agency has ample powers and resources to tackle the massive influx of bogus-call complaints triggered by the Guelph story. Kingsley pointed out that Elections Canada has unlimited authority to spend on the investigation, without asking for government approval, and a standing agreement with the RCMP to call in Mounties, including specialists on combing through computer databases. “We have every indication from Elections Canada that they are able to carry out the work,” he said.
Kingsley predicted months—not years, as some pessimistically speculate—before the investigation wraps up. At that point, Elections Canada will take its evidence to the federal director of public prosecutions, who would decide on pressing charges. If senior Tories are right, no national figures in the party will be implicated. Even so, Garneau said Conservative “culture” under Harper would be on trial. “They play hardball. We’ve seen that in in-and-out, we’ve seen it with their negative ads,” he said. “And it’s not just ramped up during an election, it’s 24/7.”
That sounds a lot like the way Harper talked, back in 2005, about what the sponsorship scandal revealed about Liberal politics. Of course, senior Conservatives protest that fake phone calls don’t signify anything about their ethos. Indeed, Lietaer said they went into the 2011 race more determined than ever to play by the rules. “Given the fights we’ve had with Elections Canada,” he said, “the last place we wanted to be was in a spot where we were defending the actions of central campaign or local campaigns.” But that’s where they have ended up. The question now is whether they can succeed, where Martin historically failed, in containing the damage.