Tories using black ops in Mount Royal

So, here is the Conservative strategy for its Quebec revival, beginning in the Montreal riding of Mount Royal.

So, here is the Conservative strategy for its Quebec revival, beginning in the Montreal riding of Mount Royal.

If you can’t win it, try to steal it by spreading lies, sowing confusion, destabilizing the rightful winner and wallowing in the slime.

By spreading false rumours about the imminent retirement of Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and flooding the riding with calls about a bogus looming byelection, the Conservatives managed to do something else quite remarkable.

They have reinforced the cynicism rampant about politicians in this country, sending their trustworthiness down yet another mine shaft.

For two weeks, Cotler, a former justice minister, has complained about calls coming into his riding, an apparent Conservative black-op, asking voters for their support in the coming byelection.

But his retirement is not imminent and there is no byelection.

The actual act was sleazy enough.

The so-called justifications merely made things worse.

“Every political party in the House identifies its voters in one way or another,” Conservative MP John Williamson said.

“This is an important part of the political process. Talking to Canadians, discussing issues with them and asking them if they support our party is nothing new.”

Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan said there have been rumours circulating about Cotler’s potential departure since he was first elected in 1999, so the calls were legitimate.

Of course, those rumours were spread by the Conservatives.

If MPs were shielded from speculation and criticism it would be an assault on freedom of speech and democratic discourse, Van Loan said.

But knowingly spreading false rumours by phone is hardly “identifying” the party’s voters or exercising freedom of speech.

And there are all kinds of rumours floating around Ottawa — many more malicious than someone’s possible departure from the Commons.

Exactly how far would Conservatives go with this gambit by targeting other MPs who ruined their plans by winning more votes than their candidate?

The calls came from Campaign Research, whose most famous recent client is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Mount Royal is highly coveted by the Conservatives.

Stephen Harper made a campaign appearance there days before the May 2 election and the party made major inroads in Cotler’s plurality in the riding once held by Pierre Trudeau.

Cotler won almost 56 per cent of the vote in Mount Royal in 2008, but last May he beat Conservative candidate Saulie Zajdel by a mere 2,261 votes.

In a piece he penned in the Montreal Gazette this week, Cotler said that the rumours flooding into his riding overshadowed the work he was trying to do as the Liberal justice critic.

Some calls even went so far as to say he had already resigned.

“This is turning free speech on its head. You can’t engage in perjury and call it free speech,” Cotler told me Thursday.

He understands there is a fascination with such political stories but “we cannot let it overshadow the real issues and their merits,” Cotler wrote in The Gazette.

“This is why the false calls are so disturbing. They have nothing to do with my record or stance on the issues.”

It’s not the first time Cotler has been targeted.

A couple of years ago, Conservatives sent out pamphlets to Jewish voters in his and other urban ridings that accused Liberals of participating in the “anti-semitic Durban 1” conference in South Africa, where delegates from Israel and the United States walked out over anti-Israeli statements.

Cotler stayed behind because he had been asked to do so by the Israeli delegation.

But here’s the kicker.

The Conservatives were so busy attacking Cotler, they ignored his amendments to an omnibus crime bill which would allow victims of terrorism to sue the perpetrators in this country.

Until, of course, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews tried to amend the bill himself at the last minute, incorporating Cotler’s suggestion.

The Speaker, Andrew Scheer, ruled Toews could not amend the law because he had shut down the committee process in his race to get the legislation passed.

And that’s no rumour.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.