Libel threats have become a practice

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s unprecedented notice of libel against Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion is an example of the “bullying” tactics Harper has relied on since winning power in 2006, says a Quebec lawyer who is now a prominent Liberal MP from Montreal.

And, says an Ottawa lawyer who has crossed swords with Harper’s libel lawyer in court, the prime minister’s legal action against Dion and two other Liberal MPs is “ironic” because Harper himself claimed parliamentary immunity to defend himself against a libel suit last year.

Montreal Liberal Marlene Jennings says Harper’s lawsuit may be a surprise to the public and the legal community, but she believes MPs from all three opposition parties see it as an attempt to use the threat of legal action to get out of a tight political corner.

Harper launched his surprising legal action after the Liberal party posted allegations that he knew of Conservative party attempts to “bribe” the late Independent MP Chuck Cadman into voting down the Liberal minority government in 2005.

The term was used in a headline on a Liberal web site article about Harper’s taped statement to a B.C. author that he was aware two Conservative party representatives approached Cadman, dying of cancer, to convince him to help defeat the government and force an election.

Cadman’s wife told the author her husband said the Tories had offered him a $1-million life insurance policy if he voted against the Liberals in a confidence motion. Harper said on the tape the offer was “only to replace financial considerations he might lose due to an election” and that he told the Conservatives to make their case about “financial insecurity” but also told them “don’t press him.”

The government denies the Conservatives offered Cadman a financial inducement to change his voting intentions. He later cast a ballot in favour of the government that resulted in a tie, forcing Speaker Peter Milliken to follow parliamentary convention by also voting in favour of the government to allow the debate on the Liberal budget to continue.

The notice of libel from Harper’s lawyer, Richard Dearden of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Ottawa, claimed the statements on the Liberal web site meant and “were understood” to mean Harper was an accomplice to an attempted bribe and that the prime minister was “dishonest, unethical, immoral and lacks integrity.”

In a $2.5-million lawsuit filed by Harper’s lawyers in Ontario Superior Court on March 13, the documents named only the Liberal party and did not mention Dion or the other two MPs. This suggests he will pursue his libel suit against only the party and not the politicians.

Jennings, a former member of the Quebec police commission who has remained a member of the Quebec bar since her first election to the Commons in 1997, says libel threats have become a practice of the Harper government, along with other forms of rhetorical intimidation on the House floor.

The tactic first emerged when the Opposition last year began asking questions about the possibility that Afghans who were being detained by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were being tortured by Afghan secret police after the Canadians handed them over to Afghan soldiers.

“When an MP gets up, whether it’s a Liberal, a Bloc, or an NDP, to ask a legitimate question about what’s happening to Afghan detainees that the Canadian military has captured as suspected Taliban supporters, what happens to them and what responsibility the Canadian government has in insuring their international rights are respected, we get called Taliban supporters,” she says.

Ottawa lawyer Tom Conway, who represented former Conservative party member and lawyer Alan Riddell in a libel action against Harper, says the threat of legal action against individual Liberals is surprising as a recent and novel development in Canadian federal politics.

But he adds it is also unusual because Harper claimed, successfully, that parliamentary immunity prevented him from being compelled to appear for discovery when Riddell sued him over a contract dispute with the Conservative party.

“Here he is serving a notice of libel on the leader of the Liberal party, who enjoys the same immunity from civil proceedings that Mr. Harper had,” Conway tells Law Times. “One has to seriously question the motivations behind that libel notice. Is Mr. Harper really aggrieved by what Mr. Dion said, either in or outside the House of Commons, or is he simply trying to shut down the debate?”

Harper’s notice of libel, against Dion, Deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, and Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale, is the latest in a recent spate of libel threats and actions that MPs or former MPs and political staff have launched.

In another controversy, Dion apologized to Harper’s deputy press secretary, Dimitri Soudas, after he questioned involvement by Soudas in a contract dispute between a Montreal developer and the Department of Public Works.

Former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney served a libel notice against Liberal MP Robert Thibault last November as the controversy over Mulroney’s past relations with German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber began.

Former Liberal Treasury Board president Reg Alcock sued Saskatchewan Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski for alleging Alcock had given his campaign manager a job with the Canadian Wheat Board.

That case was settled out of court last year in Alcock’s favour, Lukiwski says, and may be a precedent that prevents the Liberals from obtaining funding from the Commons for the lawyers politician might have to retain to defend themselves in these types of lawsuits.

The party was considering the request, but Rob Walsh, chief law clerk for the Commons, says the management board of MPs that makes such decisions is inclined not to fund legal costs when MPs take each other on through the courts.

“Within the House, the board is saying, in effect, ‘Hey guys, if you’re going to go after each other, the inequities as well as the equities flow,” says Walsh.

If they wish, the Liberals could look for pro bono assistance from the sea of lawyers that can be found in the Commons. Lawyers make up the largest single occupation group among MPs, a total of 43 among the 308 members.

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