The Liberals attempted Tuesday to draw Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, into the in-and-out advertising scandal dogging the Conservative government.
Wright is named in court documents related to the case involving four Conservative party members who are facing charges under the Elections Act. When the alleged offences are said to have taken place in 2006, Wright was registered with Elections Canada as secretary for Conservative Fund Canada, the fundraising arm of the Conservative party. He had held the position since 2003.
Four high-ranking Tories, including senators Doug Finley and Irving Gerstein, are charged under the Elections Act with moving more than $1 million through local ridings to help fund the party's national campaign. Elections Canada believes the money transfers allowed the Conservatives to exceed their election spending cap in the 2006 election.
"Four of [Wright's] accomplices face jail time. Can the prime minister explain why Nigel Wright is still in the Prime Minister's Office?" Ignatieff demanded in question period. Harper responded that Wright, who started his position in the PMO in January, has not been accused of anything.
Other Liberal MPs followed up on Ignatieff's questions about Wright, suggesting that because he worked "elbow to elbow" with those now facing charges he would have known about the plot, which the Liberals say amounts to "electoral fraud."
Speaking to reporters after question period, Ignatieff said his party is simply pointing out the facts that Wright was "present" during the 2006 election and that four of his fellow party members are now accused of violation the election law.
"The prime minister needs urgently to clarify what the heck Nigel Wright is doing in that group of people," said Ignatieff. "What is his connection with a systematic attempt to violate Canada's election law? This man is chief of staff to the prime minister. The prime minister needs to clarify his role in this affair."
The NDP said Wright should never have been hired by the prime minister in the first place because of his ties to the corporate world through his previous job as an executive with Onex Corp. When his hiring was announced, the opposition said he would inevitably encounter conflicts-of-interest in his new role because of the multitude of business files he dealt with at Onyx.
"I think that the prime minister has not been cautious in hiring Mr.Wright in his current position," deputy NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said. Wright has impeccable credentials as a business executive, said Mulcair, but Harper made "a mistake" in bringing him into the prime minister's office.
Harper and his parliamentary secretary Pierre Poilievre continued their lines of defence in the Commons Tuesday, saying the controversy is nothing more than an administrative dispute with Elections Canada and that the Conservatives will continue to press their case in court.
MPs pass Liberal motion
MPs passed a motion Tuesday night calling for the prime minister to cut formal ties with the four Tories facing charges in the "in-and-out" election financing scheme.
The non-binding vote passed 152 to 139, with the opposition Liberals, Bloc Québecois and NDP voting together.
MPs spent the day debating the Liberal motion, which calls on Harper to order Conservative candidates from the 2006 election to repay any refunds they received for money spent on national advertising. The motion also demands Harper fire anyone working with the party who is facing charges over the advertising plan.
The Liberals chose not to make the motion a confidence vote, which could have brought down the government and sent the country to an election.
Earlier in the day, the government tried to block debate in the House of Commons over the in-and-out campaign advertising spending.
The Liberal motion
Moved by MP Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour): "That, in the opinion of the House, the Conservative Party of Canada’s 'in and out' electoral financing scheme was an act of electoral fraud and represents an assault on the democratic principles upon which Parliament and our electoral system are based, and that, further, the House calls upon the Prime Minister to: (a) order the immediate repayment of any and all illegally obtained electoral rebates that were paid out to candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada as a result of the "in and out" fraud; and (b) remove all individuals facing charges for this fraud from any position of responsibility within Government or the Conservative Party of Canada."
As debate on the motion was set to get underway Tuesday morning, Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski asked Speaker Peter Milliken to rule it out of order, arguing that what the motion asks for is "contrary to the principles and practices of the House of Commons."
"In Canada, we respect the rule of law, which includes due process," Lukiwski said.
The motion, introduced by Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc, asks MPs to pass judgment on four private individuals and to serve as "judge and jury over a private civil matter before the courts," said Lukiwski, who is parliamentary secretary to House leader John Baird.
Lukiwski said passed, the motion could have a "direct, real and personal effect on an individual person and his or her reputation." Opposition MPs said the government was attempting to curtail their ability to have a debate in order to protect their own party members.
Milliken ruled the motion does not comment on the guilt or innocence of the individuals in the case and that if the motion is adopted it is merely expressing the opinion of the House of Commons.
Tuesday's debate continued opposition efforts to keep the Conservatives on the defensive over the in-and-out financing scheme, in which the Conservative party transferred money to 67 local candidates who then transferred it directly back to the national party headquarters. Elections Canada reimburses all candidates 60 per cent of their eligible expenses if they meet a certain threshold of votes and that money comes from the public purse.
Court documents show that Elections Canada reimbursed more than $100,000 to 17 Conservative candidates before the agency realized something was amiss.
The Conservatives argue what they did was perfectly legal at the time and that all of the other political parties engaged in the same practice of transferring money around. Elections Canada later changed its interpretation of how money could be spent on advertising after the 2006 election and the Conservatives didn't use the in-and-out practice again in 2008, according to the government.
When the Conservatives were denied rebates by Elections Canada following the 2006 campaign, they took the agency to court. The Conservatives initially won their case, but the Federal Court of Appeal reversed that finding last week, which has helped reignite the debate. The Conservatives say they hope to take the case to the Supreme Court.
When Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, rose in the Commons to present his arguments, he complained that the motion fails to address what Canadians care about, including job creation, and he went on to talk about the government's Economic Action Plan.
He was interrupted by opposition MPs who said he should not be permitted to speak about matters that are unrelated to the motion up for debate. Polievre was reminded by the Speaker to "stick to the topic."
Live blog of the debate and vote
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