On Friday morning, Dean Del Mastro was convicted of violating the Elections Act. With that, his situation became a matter for the House of Commons. And, as I type now on Tuesday afternoon, it appears the House is on the verge of suspending Del Mastro from the chamber—with a decision on his possible expulsion from the House put off for the time being.
The Elections Act, under which Del Mastro was charged, has its own stipulation for offences:
502 (3) Any person who is convicted of having committed an offence that is an illegal practice or a corrupt practice under this Act shall, in addition to any other punishment for that offence prescribed by this Act, in the case of an illegal practice, during the next five years or, in the case of a corrupt practice, during the next seven years, after the date of their being so convicted, not be entitled to (a) be elected to or sit in the House of Commons; or (b) hold any office in the nomination of the Crown or of the Governor in Council.
That would seem to make Del Mastro ineligible to return to his seat in the House. But the House of Commons is in charge of its own business and its own membership. Whatever the law says about one’s right to occupy a seat in the House, it is still for the House to enforce any such standard.
Perhaps underlining the seriousness of expulsion, there aren’t a lot of precedents for what the House faces here. In all its history, the House has only expelled three members: Louis Riel (twice, in 1874 and 1875), Thomas McGreevy (in 1891) and Fred Rose (in 1947). Rose, a Communist elected as a Labour Progressive MP in 1943 and 1945, was convicted as a Russian spy as part of the Gouzenko affair. He was expelled from the House on Jan. 30, 1947. Rather simply, after the Speaker tabled the relevant court documents, the House unanimously adopted a motion declaring his seat vacant and calling for a new election.
James Sprague, a retired lawyer who previously worked with Elections Canada, the Justice department and the House of Commons, had written that the question for the House now was whether it should refrain from expelling Del Mastro until he has exhausted any appeals.
To expel now or wait is a difficult question, a difference that a suspension might split.
In the case of Rose, the House seems to have waited before expelling him. Rose’s arrest became publicly known on March 15, 1946, and was discussed in the House that day. Three and a half months later, the prime minister was asked when Rose’s seat might be declared vacant and William Lyon Mackenzie King said the House would wait for the ruling on a pending appeal. A judgment on the appeal seems to have been delivered on Nov. 20, 1946*. The House did not sit at all in the fall of 1946, and so, his expulsion came at the first opportunity when the House reconvened in 1947.
But it would seem that Rose didn’t sit in the House again after being convicted. And that could have differentiated his situation from Del Mastro; after his conviction, Del Mastro told reporters he still intended to occupy his seat.
Rose was first convicted on June 15, 1946, and he was sentenced five days later. His lawyers filed an appeal between the verdict and sentencing, but, according to the book Stalin’s Man in Ottawa, Rose was denied bail while he waited for a ruling on that appeal. (There is a short reference in Hansard to Rose having been imprisoned in a “Montreal gaol.”)
In Del Mastro’s case, the House was faced with the possibility that an MP convicted of violating the Elections Act would be allowed to continue speaking in the House and to vote on legislation until his legal appeals were exhausted, however long that took.
Yesterday afternoon, both NDP House leader Peter Julian and Government House leader Peter Van Loan made full submissions to the Speaker, each rising on his own questions of privilege. In sum, Julian suggested Del Mastro be suspended from the House without pay immediately and the matter be referred to the Procedure and House Affairs committee for further study, while Van Loan wanted the Procedure and House Affairs committee to decide whether and how to suspend or expel Del Mastro. (Van Loan did allow, however, that a suspension could be a good interim measure until Del Mastro had exhausted his appeals.)
Van Loan noted that when Del Mastro’s case comes up for sentencing, the judge could, in theory, grant Del Mastro a discharge—a result that would effectively nullify the conviction. The Government House leader also suggested that Del Mastro be given an opportunity to address the House before the Speaker ruled. (Note: Del Mastro’s lawyers are also attempting to have the case reopened.)
Nonetheless, the Speaker ruled this afternoon that the matter of Del Mastro did constitute a prima facie matter of privilege for the House to consider. And, because Julian’s notice of privilege had gotten to the Speaker’s office before Van Loan’s, the Speaker invited Julian to move his motion to suspend the former Conservative MP and Julian did so.
Whatever his concerns yesterday, Van Loan soon thereafter stood and said that the government would support the NDP motion—seeming to clear the way for the NDP motion to pass and suspending Del Mastro from the House immediately.
As I type, the House is still debating the NDP motion (which is also now the object of two amendments). Matters of privilege take precedence over all other debate, so this debate will dominate House business until the parties agree to conclude debate or the government moves for closure.
Presuming that the House approves the NDP motion, the Procedure and House Affairs committee would then be charged with sorting out the details of the situation, including the possibility of a future expulsion.
Regardless of whether that very drastic measure comes to pass, the House is now involved in some rather serious business.