The case of the disappearing scandal

Remember how the old Perry Mason TV program would end with his brilliant interrogation trapping the guilty party into sobbing out a confession? It's very much unlike watching a parliamentary committee in action. I liked Raymond Burr's show better. As a rule, MPs on committees seem to have very hazy goals in questioning witnesses and no coherent strategy for reaching them. But things were far worse at this week's special meeting of the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee, apparently summoned for the sole purpose of generating silly-season headlines about Tory sleaze based on a supposed election financing scandal. First, opposition members wasted their time trying to get Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, to slam the Tories in ways he had explicitly said at the outset he would not do, because he could not comment on anything currently before the courts or under investigation by the Commissioner of Elections Canada.

Then Pierre Poilievre led off for the Tories. Since he usually reminds me of Mason's haplessly belligerent TV nemesis, DA Hamilton Burger, I wasn't expecting things to improve. But he surprised me with not one, nor two, but three of the dramatic moments that habitually marked the climax of the old Mason show.

First he asked Mr. Mayrand why slide 6 of his PowerPoint handout to the committee defined "Candidate election expenses" as "any expense incurred, or property or service used to directly promote or oppose a candidate during an election period" when the Elections Canada candidates' handbook for the 2006 election (on p. 25) directly quotes clause 407(1) of the Canada Elections Act that it must be "used directly to promote or oppose a registered party, its leader or a candidate during an election."

Since the crux of this matter is spending by local candidates to promote the national party, the altered wording to leave out "party" is not a trivial omission. (Especially as the latest, 2007 Elections Canada candidates handbook also removes the reference to parties (see p. 27) while citing the same, unaltered, clause 407(1) of the Elections Act.) But Mr. Poilievre wasn't done with his fireworks.

He then read an e-mail worth quoting in full: "Hi Phyllis, We are told by communications folks in BC that these were radio ads with the Candidate's personal tag on the end -- therefore a local expense to be reported under the Candidate's expense ceiling, regardless of who pays. For rebate purposes, we were asked to bill each campaign -- in the case of VanEast, $2,612.00. The good news is that the Federal Party will transfer $2,600 to the Federal Riding Association as we agreed to pay for the ads. We hope that you are able to squeeze this in under the ceiling. Some expenses are not considered election expenses subject to spending limits, such as fundraising costs. Please have a look at the totals and get back to us if you think we have a problem." It was signed by the federal party bookkeeper.

It sounds like sharp practice. But did it require investigation? Mr. Mayrand refused to comment without more information. So Mr. Poilievre revealed that it was an NDP e-mail obtained by the Tories from Elections Canada. Yet Mr. Mayrand testified that no other party had engaged in the sort of "in-and-out" financing that prompted him to refuse dozens of Tory reimbursement claims and ask the Commissioner of Elections Canada to investigate.

The third Mason-style moment concerned Mr. Mayrand's attempt to show that his office had not given the press or the Liberal party a heads-up on the police raid on Conservative Party HQ. In his opening statement the Chief Electoral Officer said an internal review had cleared him and his staff, though when Scott Reid on a point of order required him to table the review he quickly downgraded it to "not truly a report, barely a sheet."

So Mr. Poilievre asked who conducted the review and Mr. Mayrand grudgingly confessed that it was one M. Mayrand. Since he certainly wouldn't let the Tories investigate themselves on the in-and-out affair, Mr. Poilievre called it surprising that he'd think it appropriate to investigate himself on the leak. And it is.

The more I watch this stuff, including the ugly procedural fiddling on Wednesday, the more convinced I am that if there's a scandal here, it doesn't involve the Tories. But nobody seems to care. The opposition want a scandal, the press want a scandal, and since everybody who's anybody knows Conservatives stink, let's not bore ourselves with details on a beautiful summer day.

Imagine a Perry Mason show where, after the dramatic denouement, the jury convicted his client anyway. I expect it would be cancelled in a hurry.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]