The Commons: Robocalls in human form

As far as the government is concerned, it's the opposition that's to blame for all these mischievous phone calls

The Scene. Nycole Turmel wondered if the Prime Minister might wish to take a moment to correct the official record.

Last week, she recounted, Mr. Harper had said that only the Liberal party had been involved with American firms to facilitate its telephone campaigning. Alas, she explained, it turned out the Conservative party—or at least some of its candidates—had done likewise. Would the Prime Minister admit that he was wrong? she wondered. And, furthermore, would he admit that the Conservative party had made fraudulent calls?

The Prime Minister was unmoved. “Mr. Speaker, I gave clear answers regarding the activities of the Conservative party of Canada,” he professed. “All this information has been available to Elections Canada since the beginning. Now is the time for the opposition, which has spent millions of dollars to make hundreds of thousands of phone calls, to give all its information to Elections Canada.”

Ms. Turmel tried again. Mr. Harper, switching to English, repeated himself.

“Of course,” he assured, “I answered questions very clearly about the activities of the Conservative party of Canada. Those calls are all very well documented. All that documentation is available to Elections Canada, and has been available since the beginning. What is not available is all of the information that is coming from the opposition, the NDP in particular. There is a complete lack of transparency on the hundreds of thousands of calls that they made. They should give that information to Elections Canada.”

If the government’s implication was not obvious as yet, the Prime Minister’s dutiful parliamentary secretary made matters clear a moment later.

“The opposition paid millions of dollars to make hundreds of thousands of phone calls,” Dean Del Mastro read aloud from the script on his desk. “Before continuing these baseless smears, they should prove that their own callers are not behind these reports.”

The government claims innocence and, indeed, must be regarded as such until proven guilty. But so far as the Conservatives are now concerned, the opposition parties are perhaps guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.

The NDP’s Pat Martin was unimpressed. “We do not want any smartass gibberish from the member for Peterborough,” he clarified. “We have had enough of that.”

The Conservatives, so solemn in their regard for the sanctity and dignity of parliamentary proceedings, howled. Two backbenchers motioned for Mr. Martin to be thrown out. “Mr. Speaker, when the honourable member makes comments like that, he does not just demean this House, he is in fact demeaning millions of voters who cast legitimate votes in the last election,” moaned Mr. Del Mastro, proceeding then to repeat his suggestion that perhaps the opposition parties were to blame for all these mischevious phone calls.

Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, was moved to quip. “Mr. Speaker,” he sighed, “I wonder if getting the same answer twice qualifies as a robo-answer.”

Mr. Rae asked the Prime Minister why the government side had recently opposed expanding the investigative powers of the chief electoral officer. The Prime Minister pretended not to notice. Mr. Rae asked again. The Prime Minister again pretended not to notice. Mr. Rae asked for a third time. And for a third time the Prime Minister pretended not to notice.

“Mr. Speaker, with great respect, the Prime Minister is simply not answering the question,” Mr. Rae protested.

“The real question here is why the leader of the Liberal Party would make allegations about calls purporting to come from Liberals without checking his own records and providing that to Elections Canada?” Mr. Harper asked, perhaps misunderstanding the format of Question Period. “Why is he afraid to do that?”

For the sake of making a more efficient use of his time, Mr. Harper might as well have provided Peter Van Loan with a tape recording and instructions to press play at the appropriate time.

Charlie Angus inquired as to a new report that payments by the Conservative campaign in Guelph to a robocall firm in Edmonton were not disclosed to Elections Canada. Mr. Del Mastro stood and repeated himself. Mr. Angus stood and asked if the government might explain its dealing with a firm called RMG. Mr. Del Mastro stood and repeated himself.

“What a joke!” called a voice.

The NDP’s David Christopherson stood and—repeating Mr. Rae’s question—asked why the government had blocked new investigative powers for the chief electoral officer. Mr. Del Mastro stood and repeated himself. “These exaggerated allegations demean the millions of voters who had cast legitimate votes in the last election,” he cried.

It is unclear whether Shelly Glover and Patricia Davidson—two Conservative MPs who have reported phone calls misdirecting voters in their ridings—are meant to take this personally. It is unclear whether Mr. Del Mastro counts his own allegations among the unfortunate claims being made. It is unclear whether Mr. Del Mastro wishes for voters reporting fraudulent calls to now apologize. And it is unclear how those who intended to vote, but didn’t after turning up at the wrong polling station, fit into Mr. Del Mastro’s equation.

But Mr. Christopherson was not interested in parsing. “Mr. Speaker, the member needs to know that this has to stop,” he demanded. “There is a legitimate, separate question being asked here.”

Now, apparently, this entire system of accountable government was at stake.

“The government has an obligation to provide an answer about why it denied the Chief Electoral Officer the power he requested to make sure everybody in here is telling the truth. Every province in this country has given that power to their chief electoral officer, but the Government of Canada is refusing to give the federal Chief Electoral Officer these powers,” Mr. Christopherson continued, his voice rising and rising, his finger wagging and jabbing. “I ask again. Defend yourself. Why are you denying the Chief Electoral Officer the right to have the…”

The New Democrats and Liberals rose up around him to cheer, drowning out his final words.

“Let us be clear,” Mr. Del Mastro graciously offered. “The former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley has said that Elections Canada does have all the investigative ability and authority that it requires in this matter.”

Here then, an applicable sentence. A rather debatable assertion—seeming to ignore the current chief electoral officer’s position—but a sentence that could be applied to the question asked all the same.

And now then, back to the script.

“This is yet another example,” Mr. Del Mastro segued, “of exaggerated allegations which demean the millions of voters who had cast legitimate votes in the last election.”

So are some 14,823,408 of us demeaned. Those of you who failed to exercise your right can at least take solace in not having to take any of this personally.

The Stats. Ethics, 18 questions. Health care, five questions. Government spending, four questions. Fisheries, three questions. Veterans, two questions. Aboriginal affairs, railways, infrastructure, crime and Internet access, one question each.

Dean Del Mastro, nine answers. Stephen Harper, seven answers. Shelly Glover, five answers. Colin Carrie and Keith Ashfield, four answers each. Pierre Poilievre, three answers. Steven Blaney, two answers. John Duncan, Denis Lebel, Rona Ambrose, Vic Toews and Christian Paradis, one answer each.