Chris Hall: When can Peter Penashue speak for himself?

The federal government is not letting new minister Peter Penashue defend himself against allegations of campaign overspending. That is not helping the minister, or the rigor of Canada's election laws, Chris Hall says.

The federal intergovernmental affairs minister sits in the front row of the government's benches in the Commons, not far from the Speaker. 

And that's what the Conservatives' Peter Penashue does. He sits, even as questions mount about overspending in his 2011 election campaign. 

New Democrat Charlie Angus demanded to know how the minister ''blew past the legal spending limits'' in 2011 by failing to disclose $18,000 in flights to communities in the sprawling Labrador riding. 

Liberal leader Bob Rae accused the first-time MP, the first Innu elected from Labrador, of ''buying the seat,'' and he has demanded an investigation by Elections Canada. 

Then yesterday, CBC News reported that Penashue's campaign appeared to credit a $5,500 donation to a prominent Newfoundland construction company.

Federal law bans contributions from corporations and unions, but the Conservatives claimed the money came from six senior executives of Pennecon Ltd., each of whom received a tax receipt.

Yet a statement of the deposits submitted by Penashue's campaign credits the entire donation to the company itself.

Defence left to others

The alleged corporate donation is the latest in a series of questions raised about Conservative campaign spending in Labrador, though there's nothing to indicate at this point that Penashue himself was involved in any wrongdoing.

Muzzled minister, Labrador MP Peter Penashue.

Still, his response to all of this has been only silence, while others with more political experience respond in the Commons.

One day it's the prime minister rising in his defence. On another it's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Most days it's backbench MP Pierre Poilievre, who, like Baird, is highly effective in the art of the counterattack.

It is a tactic the government routinely employs in Question Period to blunt opposition attacks, and to push unwanted news stories far down the lineup. 

Poilievre's response typically follows the same routine. He praises Penashue's integrity, he blames an inexperienced campaign agent in the Labrador constituency for any problems. He says the Conservative Party is working with Elections Canada to straighten everything out. 

Then he launches into attack, often accusing the NDP of being the party that accepted illegal donations from trade unions. 

"It was their party that broke those rules in accepting over $340,000 in illegal union money,'' he solemnly informed the House this week. "And it was their leader, who attempted to cover up all that illegal money.'' 

Whenever a Liberal raises similar questions, Poilievre tweaks the response, to remind the Commons that it was a Liberal riding association in Guelph that paid a $4,900 fine for breaking rules on telephone soliciting in the 2011 campaign.

But of course there are some things he leaves out in the heat of this kind of battle.

Selective examples

What Poilievre and other Conservatives never allude to is that their own party paid a a $52,000 fine just a year ago after pleading guilty to overspending in the 2006 federal election, part of the so-called in-and-out affair. 

That doesn't fit the narrative of never explain and never admit mistakes. And above all, never let the opposition parties get the upper hand.

It's a tactic former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien used repeatedly during his years in majority government, even in the face of the growing sponsorship scandal. (The fallout from that came later, under Paul Martin's watch.)

But saving face for this government shouldn't be the only objective here, particularly as it overlooks other important concerns involving Canada's electoral laws. 

Whether the overspending was inadvertent, as claimed in the Penashue case, or a legitimate dispute over the interpretation of acceptable contributions, as in the in-and-out controversy and others, Canada's election spending laws are being undermined with each and every one of these disputes. 

Some critics, such as Democracy Watch, complain that the penalties for candidate overspending are too small to act as a deterrent. The maximum fine is $5,000. 

Another important criticism is that Elections Canada always responds after the fact, and even then with excruciating slowness. 

The agency's investigators have spent 18 months looking into allegations of misleading robo-calls in Guelph (and subsequently elsewhere) in the 2011 election, with no end in sight.

An MPs credibility

And then there's Penashue himself.

While all this plays out he sits in the Commons, taking the heat, but taking no questions. 

It's a difficult position to be in. Attacked, but muzzled. Apparently unable to defend himself, or to explain, which is the essence of parliamentary accountability. 

He's not the first government member to be put in that awkward position. Tony Clement rarely responded to questions about the controversial spending on gazebos and boardwalks in his riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka in preparation for the G8 summit. 

And Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro was the government's responder of choice on robo-calls, until questions were raised about campaign financing in his own Peterborough riding.

The Conservatives clearly believe the best tactic is to let others answer for the weakened members of the herd, and to turn the focus back on past opposition breaches whenever they can. 

It certainly muddies the water. But it doesn't allow people like Penashue to see their own way clear of a controversy, even in cases when it could be of their own making.