A Conservative cabinet minister shouts angrily at a Liberal MP down below on the floor of the Commons: “Step outside and say that. Come on! Step outside.”
The visitors in the public galleries are aghast, expecting a scene from parliaments in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Japan.
Nothing of the sort. No fisticuffs here. The cabinet minister is daring the MP to repeat his nasty put-down outside the Commons so he can sue him.
Parliamentary privilege does not apply outside the chamber and politicians can be sued for defamatory libel just like anyone else.
And these Conservatives love to sue - at the drop of a hat. It’s an old American disease they brought up to Canada.
Take the famous Cadman affair - the one that Harper doesn’t want to talk about. The Liberal web site asked pointedly what Harper knew about a million-dollar bribe offered to a dying MP, Chuck Cadman, to change his vote and turf out the Liberals back in 2005.
Harper, who was later tape-recorded by a reporter as saying “financial considerations” were involved, decides that asking him what he might have known amounts to libel, so he gets himself one of the best libel lawyers around, Richard Dearden, and sues the Liberal party and its web site for $2.5 million, which would be the highest amount ever awarded for libel in Canada. Think big, Stephen.
It’ll be years before the case ever gets to trial, if it ever does, but in the meantime, the Liberals have backed off. They don’t talk about Cadman much any more. Even their web site has been edited. Score a big one for Harper. Didn’t cost him a cent either.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes further. He doesn’t sue just for libel. He sues for whatever else he feels has gone against him. Who would have guessed - all this is from a prime minister who once had a phobia about lawyers, judges, and the courts. That was before he became prime minister and the taxpayers got the honour of paying his legal bills.
Take the ad-scheme that Conservatives used in the last election to spend an extra $1.3 million, most of which they wanted Elections Canada to fork over to them.
Elections Canada ruled the scheme wasn’t legal and refused to hand over about $600,000 of taxpayers’ money to the Conservative party. So Harper hired a lawyer and took Elections Canada to court to get his money.
Elections Canada decided to stand up to Harper. They called in the Mounties and raided the party offices in Ottawa to get documents they said Harper’s people weren’t giving them. They must have convinced the judge in Toronto with their affidavit because they got their search warrant.
It caught the Conservatives by surprise. At first they spun that it was just a friendly “visit” by the Mounties. Then, when that didn’t wash, they did an about-face and accused the Mounties of “storming” their offices and of being in cahoots with the Liberals and Elections Canada.
Imagine how that one went over with RCMP Commissioner William Elliott, appointed by Harper only a few months ago out of Harper’s office. One can always take liberties with friends.
After running down a fire escape in a downtown hotel to avoid reporters they didn’t want to meet, the Conservatives changed their tune once again.
“But everybody does it,” the Conservatives said in the Commons. “But officer, everybody runs red lights,” I said to the cop. “Yeah, but I caught you, Cleroux.”
The Conservatives began busily searching for evidence to show other political parties also have been using their same in-and-out financing scheme.
Supposedly that would make it less objectionable, and so much more legal.
That’s called the race to the bottom.
“Mommy, Jamie pooped on the floor too.”
Meanwhile the Mounties began poring over the strange invoices the Conservatives had been using to claim $600,000 from taxpayers - all somehow dated on the same day, Jan. 1, 2006, and all spelled “NVOICE” with the first letter “I” missing.
Talk about working overtime on holidays. Talk about sloppy billing. For the cops, it’s not rocket science.
The documents filed in support of the RCMP affidavit show the Mounties want to establish whether the money claimed on the strange invoices was ever spent on real campaign ads or whether they were just churned out by persons unknown (no one signed the “NVOICEs”) as part of an outright criminal fraud. That’s why the Mounties are in the picture. They couldn’t care less about the legality or illegality of the Conservatives’ in-and-out scheme.
That’s for Federal Court to decide.
Court for sure, though possibly only after the next election.
But that Harper is a wily one. Right now, behind the scenes, Harper’s people are cooking up an amendment to the Canada Elections Act to legalize their fabulous in-and-out election scheme, so that even if Harper loses in court against Elections Canada, he will win on the floor of the Commons and get his money from Elections Canada.
So you see. Even Harper doesn’t need the courts all the time.
Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org