OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is refusing to explain why Conservative MPs rejected a request by Elections Canada for more power to verify campaign financial returns.
Harper's evasions Tuesday in the House of Commons were held up by Opposition MPs as evidence the Conservatives have something to hide in the growing investigation of fraudulent election-day robocalls.
The prime minister insisted otherwise.
"We have been assisting Elections Canada with any information it requires in this matter," Harper said, referring to an investigation in Guelph, Ont., that has now expanded to other federal ridings.
"We consider the activities that apparently took place in Guelph to be totally unacceptable, and we want to see that matter investigated and solved."
Elections Canada reacted to the growing scandal Tuesday by posting a complaint form online where those who believe they may have received a fraudulent phone call during the spring 2011 campaign can state their case.
"I would like to thank Canadians for taking the time to contact Elections Canada and for sharing their information," Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer, said in a release. "I will be tabling a report to Parliament on this matter in due course."
Left unanswered by Harper was why the government majority on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee balked at giving Mayrand the same investigative powers as his provincial counterparts.
A committee report, adopted Feb. 9 and publicly posted just last week, states that the Conservative majority voted against giving Marc Mayrand the power to compel parties to back up their financial statements with receipts and details.
"Currently, only candidates are required to submit documentation to support their election expense return," states the report.
Mayrand requested the power to "ensure that political parties are complying with the provisions of the Act relating to election expenses" before reimbursing them millions of dollars in rebates.
His preferred option was to simply allow Elections Canada to demand documentation on select items, just like the auditor general does, to verify accuracy.
As a second option, Mayrand proposed having the parties hire an external auditor to do their own "compliance audit."
Conservatives chose the latter option, against the wishes of the Liberal and NDP minority.
Late Tuesday, Tom Lukiwiski, parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, issued a two-line statement: "Elections Canada presented the committee with two options. The committee chose the option that put the financial burden on the individual parties rather than the taxpayer."
The committee report says the compliance audit option will indeed cost the parties. But it suggests the Conservatives were also worried about "compliance burdens" of giving Mayrand more power.
"A majority of the members were concerned about the additional compliance burdens that would be placed on political parties, as well as the possible additional costs to Elections Canada in conducting these audits."
In fact, the report says Mayrand would use his increased powers sparingly, such as to "identify a particular expense that may require further explanation and perhaps documentation."
NDP critic David Christopherson was angry and puzzled by the Conservative stance.
"Why would the government of the day deny the chief electoral officer, an agent of Parliament, the power to do their jobs? They're big on law and order everywhere else. Why aren't they when it comes to the chief electoral officer?" he demanded.
"It leads us to ask in the context of the robocalls, what are they hiding?" added Christopherson. "What is it about having this power that terrifies them because otherwise they play like the chief electoral officer is the sheriff in town ...."
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae asked Harper three times in a row during the daily question period about the Conservative decision without getting a direct answer.
"It's incomprehensible to me why the government would say you can't have the same powers (as provincial elections watchdogs)," Rae said outside the House.
"It gives everyone and it certainly gives me the impression that they have something to hide. I think that's pretty clear."