OTTAWA - The Conservative government reversed course Wednesday and now says it will support an NDP motion to give Elections Canada increased audit powers.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has battled the federal elections watchdog for much of his political career, told the House of Commons his government will support new legislation within six months — as proposed by the official Opposition.
"We are not opposed at all to that proposal," Harper, speaking French, responded to NDP interim Leader Nicole Turmel.
The prime minister's casual concession — a day after he'd repeatedly sidestepped the question — appeared to catch the opposition off-guard, as both New Democrat and Liberal MPs subsequent questions continued to rail about Conservative intransigence.
A spokesman in the Prime Minister's Office confirmed the government's about-face after the daily question period.
New Democrats and Liberals have been making hay of the fact a Conservative-dominated committee last month formally turned down a recommendation by the chief electoral officer for new investigative powers. The rejection followed almost two years of committee deliberation on the issue, much of it behind closed doors.
"Are the wheels beginning to fall off their wagon?" a non-plussed NDP critic David Christopherson asked outside the Commons.
"Are they finally getting some oxygen and realizing what the right thing is to do?"
The Conservative committee rejection has been used by opposition critics as damning evidence against the government in the context of Elections Canada's growing investigation into fraudulent election phone calls during the 2011 campaign.
However the connection is circumstantial, not direct. Mayrand initially asked for improved audit powers following the 2008 election, and not in the context of his current robocalls inquiry.
"I am unaware of Elections Canada claiming they do not have the authority or resources to investigate this matter as they should," Harper dryly noted Wednesday in the Commons.
Christopherson will formally introduce a voteable NDP motion Thursday calling for legislation, within six months, giving Elections Canada the power to compel supporting documents on parties' financial claims.
The motion also proposes that telecommunications companies who do voter contact work during elections must register with Elections Canada, and would impose tighter regulations on robocall clients.
For a prime minister who has long fought Elections Canada, Harper's agreement to new powers may reflect the political toll the robocall scandal is taking on his government.
Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, noted that as head of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition, Harper battled the elections watchdog all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada before losing in 2004 on his constitutional challenge of third-party advertising limits during election campaigns.
In the course of that challenge, Harper publicly derided Elections Canada officials as "jackasses."
"We also have to understand, everything in Mr. Harper's background makes him dislike Elections Canada," said Rae.
Harper and the Conservative party just spent five years fighting Elections Canada over illegally exceeding their spending limit in the 2006 campaign that brought them to power. Last November, the party and its fundraising arm both pleaded guilty to two counts each of violating the Elections Act and paid the maximum $52,000 fine.
And late Tuesday night, the Conservatives dropped a related challenge to the Supreme Court and agreed to repay $230,198 in 2006 election rebates to candidates who weren't eligible because of the fudged party books.
"They were found guilty. They were found that they did something wrong. They appealed the ruling. They lost," said NDP MP Pat Martin.
"Now they're going to cough up."