The foul called on the Fair Elections Act

Conservative MP Brad Butt's fairy tale about election fraud hasn't helped the Harper government sell a Fair Elections Act that the opposition feels is anything but, Chris Hall writes.

Conservative MP Brad Butt's fairy tale about election fraud hasn't helped the cause

Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismisses concerns over his Fair Elections Act as "NDP conspiracy theories." (Canadian Press)

Until now, Brad Butt laboured as a little-known Conservative MP.

That relative obscurity probably seems like the good old days now that he's been called out in the Commons for telling a fabricated story in support of his government's controversial plan to rewrite federal election laws.

Obviously, Butt's credibility is taking a hit this week over the concocted story that he'd seen, first-hand, people fishing discarded voter information cards out of the trash and using them.

But it doesn't end there.

His Conservative colleagues are also taking a hit for refusing to allow a committee to inquire further into Butt's sleight-of-memory, and for rejecting a more thorough public airing of the sweeping, 244-page bill to overhaul election rules.

The two events combined culminated in a week of filibusters, procedural wrangling and the kinds of personal attacks that give politics its reputation as a blood sport.

Here's how it all began.

Last month Butt stood in the Commons not once but twice, and described with considerable flourish that he'd seen examples of voter fraud.

"I have actually witnessed other people picking up the voter cards and going to use them to vote, '' he said.

Three weeks later the freshman MP from Mississauga, Ont., stood in the House to correct the record, following that up a day later with an apology.

Sorry, not good enough

Despite the retraction and belated apology, Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer ruled in favor of the opposition who argued Butt had deliberately misled the Commons.

But for Conservative MPs, Butt's mea culpa was good enough. After a long debate that wrapped up Wednesday, they voted to ignore the Speaker's ruling and end any further inquiry.

After twice telling Parliament he had seen voter fraud occur, Conservative MP Brad Butt then stood up to say he had misspoke. (CBC)

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan even argued that to allow a Commons committee to inquire further would discourage other MPs from correcting the record when they misspeak.

"We will create a situation where people are no longer encouraged to come to this House and correct the record, and tell the truth, for fear they will face a contempt action. Face having their name dragged through the mud for doing the right thing.''

For the opposition, however, the apology was not enough. Far from it.

They say this isn't a case of retelling a story that wasn't accurate. Or inadvertently misstating something. It's about a politician who said he'd witnessed an event that never happened.

NDP House leader Nathan Cullen insists MPs are entitled to a full explanation.

''He was aware of what he was doing at the time. And he was doing it for the most cynical of reasons, to try to convince Canadians and MPs that their bill was required.

"That there was a problem he personally had witnessed. A crime he had witnessed when in fact it wasn't true. He knows it wasn't true.''

The Liberals are just as interested in motive. They want to know why Butt concocted this story in the first place, particularly as it suggests he witnessed people violating election rules and never bothered to report it.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux wondered whether anyone from Elections Canada's enforcement office contacted Butt after he told his story. He also demanded to know what role, if any, the government played in investigating his claims.

As yet there is no answer to either of those questions.

The real issue

The furore over Butt's comments all but obscured the bitter debate over the Conservatives decision to rewrite the rules governing federal elections, and to push the bill through Parliament before the summer.

Among other things the Fair Elections Act would raise the limits on political donations and increase penalties on anyone who breaks election rules.

Most controversially, the government wants to separate the roles of running elections from enforcing election law, reduce Elections Canada's public information role and scrap the long-established practice of allowing someone to vouch for another voter who doesn't have proper identification.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair says the new election law potentially discriminates against low-income voters who may not have the kind of ID that would now be required. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says the bill discriminates against seniors, members of First Nations and young people, who might not always have appropriate ID and who "don't necessarily vote Conservative."

It's why his party has decided to hold its own cross-country hearings on the bill, if only to highlight how unfair the changes are.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday waved away what he called "NDP conspiracy theories.''

"The intention of the act is to ensure everyone who votes are valid, registered voters and that they can identify themselves. These are the objectives, making sure the vote is fair and that all people who vote are entitled to vote and only vote once.''

Voting irregularities have been a serious issue in recent elections, particularly for the Conservatives, with charges of exceeding campaign spending limits and making misleading calls to voters.

Still, the government hasn't come up with much to justify the kinds of changes referred to by the prime minister, let alone any evidence to support the kind of irregularities in Brad Butt's tale of fancy.

Those things might just be enough for the NDP to get people believing in conspiracy theories.


  • A previous version of this column said that the proposed law would require the director of public prosecutions, a government appointee, to approve any investigation under the Elections Act. In fact, the commissioner of elections would still decide what to investigate under the act.
    Mar 27, 2014 5:59 PM ET


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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