OTTAWA — The Harper government is openly questioning the integrity of Canada’s independent elections watchdog after a court granted Liberal leadership contenders a two-year extension to pay off their three-year-old campaign debts.
Six candidates from the 2006 leadership contest, including victor Stephane Dion, went to court last month to seek a reprieve until Dec. 31, 2011. The extension was granted late last week.
Election law specifically allows such extensions.
Nevertheless, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre complained Tuesday that Elections Canada “did not even lift a finger to hold Liberal leadership candidates accountable after they missed numerous deadlines to repay their debts.”
Poilievre said no one from the independent agency showed up for the court proceedings nor did anyone “file one piece of paper” with the court.
By contrast, he said Elections Canada has tenaciously pursued the Conservative party over allegedly illegal advertising expenditures during the 2006 election campaign.
A Federal Court judge recently ruled that the expenditures were legitimate. Elections Canada has not yet said whether it will appeal the ruling.
In stark contrast to its lenient treatment of Liberal leadership contenders, Poilievre said: “Elections Canada is spending millions of dollars on spin doctors and lawyers to investigate the Conservative party for a practice that the Federal Court has already deemed legal.
“In light of these developments, it is becoming increasingly difficult to trust the impartiality of Elections Canada.”
Scott Brison, a former Liberal leadership contender who has now paid off all his campaign debts, called Poilievre’s bashing of Elections Canada “shameful” and “completely off-base.”
“Elections Canada is respected and recognized globally as an impartial and fair authority . . . Elections Canada is trusted around the world to supervise elections,” Brison noted.
Coming on the heels of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament until March 3, Brison said the unwarranted attack on Elections Canada is “another case of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives attacking Canadian institutions.”
Under elections law, the leadership debts were to be repaid by June 2008 but only two of 11 contenders — Bob Rae and Carolyn Bennett — managed that feat.
The law specifically allows candidates to seek extensions from Elections Canada. Eight contenders — including current Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who has since paid off his debt — were duly granted extensions until the end of 2009. A ninth, Ken Dryden, was given until June 2010.
The law allows candidates to seek court sanction for any further extensions, which have now been granted to six contenders.
Similar rules exist for candidates in elections and records show scores of Conservative candidates have routinely received extensions after missing the deadline for paying off their campaign debts