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March 13, 2012

A tale of two strikes at our democracy

Geoffrey Stevens

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This is a tale of two political scandals. Both strike at the heart of our democracy.

The first is a year-old scandal in which the Harper government refused to provide information about the costs of some of its programs, including corporate tax cuts, new prisons and the controversial purchase of F-35 stealth fighter jets. In our system, Parliament is supreme; governments exist at the pleasure of Parliament, not the other way around.

The Commons insisted the Conservatives table the information. The government refused, thumbing its nose at the principle of parliamentary supremacy. The Commons then passed a motion finding the Tories in contempt of Parliament. So Harper called a general election, which, as we all know, the Conservatives won easily.

They won by employing two stratagems. First, they presented the contempt-of-Parliament issue as a naked grab for power by desperate Liberals, socialists and separatists. Second, they portrayed the contempt vote as just part of a parliamentary game, an “inside baseball” sort of thing, with absolutely no relevance to the good governance of the country.

Both stratagems succeeded, brilliantly. But this triumph of political cynicism over constitutional principle comes at a cost. What will happen next time?

What will happen if a future government has something crucial to hide from Parliament — say, evidence of criminal conduct by cabinet ministers? The Prime Minister of the day will be able to say, “Stephen Harper got away with it in 2011. We are just following precedent. We will do as we please.”

The second scandal is, of course, the current vote-suppression affair or “Robocall.” The Conservatives stand accused of interfering with the right of Canadians to vote in dozens of ridings in the last federal election by using automated phone systems to direct them away from their proper polling stations.

This scandal is developing a life of its own. Until a couple of weeks ago, it seemed to belong more in the category of dirty tricks — the work of perhaps just one overzealous kid in Guelph — than electoral fraud. But the deeper the opposition dug, the bigger the scandal grew. By the end of last week, an astonishing 31,000 voters had come forward to Elections Canada.

The Conservatives themselves have helped to fuel the scandal, by issuing implausible denials, by presenting wrong or misleading information, or by trying to blame the opposition for the abuses — as if anyone would seriously believe that the Liberals would break the law in an attempt to sabotage their own chances of winning. Let’s get real!

The tactics that worked for Harper and Co. in the contempt scandal won’t work in this one. This is not “inside baseball,” an affair that can be confined to Parliament Hill. And the fundamental issue — the right to vote freely — resonates with too many people — 31,000 and counting — to be ignored. There was a public demonstration, a small one, in Vancouver on Saturday and similar protests are planned in other cities this week. Investigators for Elections Canada and the RCMP are on the case.

People who compare “Robogate,” as some call it, to Watergate, are missing one key element. Watergate had a “smoking gun” in Richard Nixon’s own White House tapes.

In Robogate, there is no smoking gun to link the people who plotted the vote suppression to figures in the Tory hierarchy.

Still, it is more than dirty tricks.

“There’s dirty tricks and then there’s breaking law and there’s a big difference between the two,” says former NDP national director Robin Sears. “ … Having 12 pizzas delivered to your opponent at 2 a.m. is dirty tricks, but telling people you’re Elections Canada and that you’ve changed the location of a polling booth is breaking the law. That kind of behaviour, and particularly not on this scale, I don’t think we’ve ever seen.”

Chances are that smoking gun, if it exists, will not be found. But when dirty tricks graduate into electoral fraud, they create a stench worse than stale pizza.  March 5, 2012

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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