Politics·Point of View

REID: Election charges undermine Harper legacy

The issue at stake in the Elections Act charges laid against senior Conservatives this week is not the 2006 election - it is the legacy of the man who still leads Canada in 2011.

According to Elections Canada, it's official: The Conservatives cheated in the 2006 federal election campaign.

The latest evidence came yesterday when formal charges were laid against the Conservative Party itself and assorted senior officials including former campaign chief and current Senator Doug Finley.

Scott Reid

Scott Reid is a former senior adviser and director of communications to Prime Minister Paul Martin who appears regularly in Point of Order on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.

Let's pause to allow the full significance of that statement time to steep. Elections Canada, the national, non-partisan institution charged by statute with overseeing the clean and accountable conduct of national elections, believes the Harper Conservatives incorrectly re-directed $1.3 million to unlawfully amplify its 2006 advertising budget.

How strongly does it feel the Conservatives broke the law?

Strongly enough that it sent officials to Conservative headquarters to lay charges directly (think Elliott Ness bursting into a speakeasy and waving around a Treasury Department badge). Strongly enough that it has pursued Conservative candidates in court for a couple of years now on the same matter and most recently applied to the federal court of appeal to ensure those penalties are recognized and enforced.

Strongly enough that it has endured a barrage of venom-filled invective from some of Stephen Harper's closest friends and allies who, true-to-form, have added the Chief Electoral Officer to their unofficial Enemies List (along with a similar inventory of obvious no-goodniks including the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the country's most recent Chief Statistician, various members of the judiciary they did not appoint and anyone who disses Nickleback). 

And yes, this is the same Elections Canada that is sought around the world to advise and monitor elections in fragile democracies. Such is the regard for its independence, expertise and legitimacy. But for, it seems, from its own government.

The Conservatives, not surprisingly, deny suggestions they broke any laws — criminal or administrative — and they point to their recent victory in court that Elections Canada is now appealing. Less is said of the December 2010 outcome in favour of Elections Canada with respect to the also-related matter of candidates' GST rebates.

Above all, they dismiss as sour grapes the arguments of those campaigning on the other side in 2006 that an additional $1.3 million to buy negative ads in the closing days of that closely fought election might have proven consequential. No matter the fact that their 21-seat plurality would have been reversed if as few as 4,502 voters in 11 squeaker ridings had voted for the incumbent government rather than the Conservative candidate (for those keeping track that's roughly $290 per vote from the ill-gained $1.3 million victory fund).

And of course, nothing dare be said of the unprecedented and still shockingly unexplored mid-campaign intervention by the-then RCMP Commissioner that saw an 18-point lead in Ontario for the Liberals transmute into a six-point lead for the Conservatives within a few days.

No. It was the sudden and sultry charms of Stephen Harper that steamrolled the Conservatives to success. Clearly.

But let's agree with the Conservatives to dismiss the question of whether that $1.3 million actually bought them a victory they would have otherwise been denied. After all, there is no way of knowing how history might have unfolded. And imagining that money was never parceled out does nothing to retrospectively elevate the campaigns of others or excuse Liberal campaign officials whose injudicious use of language was insulting and stupidly eclipsed an important debate about child care options.

Although we cannot go so far as to say the money didn't matter — obviously the Conservatives thought it did or they would not have organized themselves in the first place to access it —  it is decidedly pointless to debate "What Ifs."

What can — and what must — still be explored is whether the only principle that remains standing in Stephen Harper's Ottawa is that the ends justify the means. Whether the Conservatives will be held to account for their actions — if indeed it is shown they deliberately and willfully broke election law. And how can the wrong be righted since we cannot of course, turn back time and conduct again an election held a half-decade ago on different terms.

Stephen Harper will say he doesn't care. That it's a minor disagreement as to how a rule might be interpreted. But that is plainly disingenuous. Harper is the Roger Clemens of federal politics. A man who fights against any and all evidence he did wrong. Who accuses his accusers of ulterior motives. Who bullies those he can and demeans those he cannot. And who, in the final analysis, if — and we should say if — is confirmed as a cheat, will employ his supporters to argue that it does nothing to undermine his achievements. But it does. It undermines everything. Because it undermines his personal integrity.

In that respect, the historic issue at stake is not the result of the 2006 election. It is the legacy of the man who still leads Canada in 2011. Once the outcome of these charges has been fully adjudicated let's hope the finding takes a central, not marginal place in our permanent assessment of Stephen Harper. And let's hope that others refuse to follow his lead — whether it works or not.