MONTREAL — House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer described a Conservative Party telephone campaign in Irwin Cotler’s Mount Royal riding as “reprehensible,” but for technical reasons said he could not rule that the veteran Liberal MP’s parliamentary privileges had been breached.
While expressing sympathy for Cotler having had to endure calls to his constituents that spoke of an “impending, if not imminent, byelection” and asking if they would support a Conservative candidate, Scheer said the facts on the ground show that the MP’s ability to carry out his parliamentary duties has not been impeded by the partisan campaign.
Cotler is dissatisfied with the Dec. 13 ruling and believes Scheer erred in not finding a breach of privilege. He thinks the speaker should have – and still could – pronounce that such practices must cease. Cotler would also like an apology from the Conservatives.
Had Scheer ruled in Cotler’s favour, the matter could have been referred to committee for investigation and possible sanction.
As for the technical constraints he faced in coming to a decision, Scheer, the Conservative MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle, stressed the limitations of the speaker’s powers in such matters. He also found that what constitutes evidence of breach of privilege has not been sufficiently codified.
The precedents set by previous speakers, which he cited, point to the difficulty of deciding these matters, but the practical effect of any alleged interference with an MP’s job has to be a prime consideration, he indicated.
Scheer quoted his predecessor Peter Milliken, from 2009: “In adjudicating questions of privilege of this kind, the speaker is bound to assess whether or not the member’s ability to fulfil his parliamentary functions effectively has been undermined.”
Scheer noted that judging by how “extremely active” Cotler has been in the House and in committee and the “extensive sympathetic coverage in media across the country” that he has received to his “legitimate grievance” the Conservative tactics have neither hindered his work nor damaged his reputation.
Nevertheless, he stated: “I am sure that all reasonable people would agree that attempting to sow confusion in the minds of voters as to whether or not their member is about to resign is a reprehensible tactic and that the honourable member for Mount Royal has a legitimate grievance.”
Cotler finds it ironic that his activity as an MP should be invoked as a reason to not find the Conservative Party at fault.
First elected in 1999, Cotler raised the matter in the House Nov. 16, after his office received numerous communications from his constituents (and a few people living just outside the riding) about the phone calls, which appeared to be made by a pollster.
The calls were traced to the Ontario-based market research firm Campaign Research Inc., and House leader Peter Van Loan subsequently acknowledged that the survey was conducted by the Conservative Party to identify voter support. He made no apology for the callers speaking of an upcoming byelection, saying such rumours have been rife almost since the time Cotler was first elected.
Even though it was not the one he sought, Cotler said the ruling is “clearly an acknowledgement that something wrong occurred.”
“No Canadian voter should be confronted with false and misleading calls and expected to sort out the truth from rumour [as Scheer suggested]. Indeed, they should not receive such calls in the first place.
“Asking my constituents, outside an election, ‘Do you support the Conservative Party?’ is fine, but telling them there is an imminent byelection because I have resigned or am about to resign is something that ought not to be acceptable.”
Cotler also believes Scheer was mistaken in not addressing the question of whether the phone campaign amounted to contempt of Parliament, whatever his conclusions about the complaint. To Cotler, a former McGill University law professor and justice minister, it is obvious that this is what it was.
Although he has no further recourse in the House, Cotler is urging all parties to formally acknowledge that such tactics are unacceptable and vow to never engage in them.
On Dec. 16, Liberal leader Bob Rae wrote to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand asking him to look into the matter because it is Elections Canada’s “exclusive responsibility for issuing writs for federal byelections.”
Rae thinks the Conservative phone campaign may be a violation of Section 92 of the Canada Elections Act because voters were deliberately misinformed.