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Daniel D. Veniez Headshot

Harper's "I Know Nothing" Sgt. Schultz Routine isn't Flying

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Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons today and said emphatically that the Conservative Party was not behind the Robocalls. Well, if not them, then who did?

If the Conservatives are so adamant that they have done nothing wrong, Harper should be the first on his feet to call a full judicial inquiry into allegations of electoral fraud. The Sergeant Schultz -- "I know nothing" -- routine just isn't good enough.

There are deeply troubling questions that require answers. For example, who owns these firms? What are their ties to the Conservative Party? Do any senior members of the Conservative Party or their fundraising arms have any financial interests in these firms? What specific instructions were the firms given and who gave them? If they were freelancing on these calls and other dirty tricks, how will they be held accountable? Did these firms sub-contract to call centers in the United States, Singapore, India, and elsewhere? What role did third party actors play? Where did they get their financing? Who ultimately wrote the cheques, and what ties, if any, do they have with the Conservative Party?

If there's nothing to hide, let's open this up to public scrutiny so that we can restore confidence in our electoral system.

Robocalls scratch the surface of the ugly underbelly of dirty tricks. "Push-pull" polling -- a commonly used technique by Conservatives -- by telemarketing firms are just another example, as are the use of cellular phone scrambling technologies to disrupt the campaign organizations of political opponents.

There's also a structural problem that can use thoughtful investigation. Last May, my counsel and I filed two complaints with Elections Canada on serious matters pertaining to Conservative dirty tricks in my riding. We have yet to receive even a formal acknowledgement of the complaints and we have heard nothing from them in almost a year.

I am not alone. Many of my colleagues in the Liberal Party and NDP have filed complaints have yet to hear back from Elections Canada. That is because they are incredibly understaffed and under-resourced to do much more than supervise the mechanics of holding elections. This is not a criticism of the people of Elections Canada. They are outstanding public servants who are doing a good job with the limited tools and resources available to them. Fixing this should be on the top of parliament's agenda.

It is a testament to the sorry state of our politics that we even have to even discuss beefing up the enforcement capacity of Elections Canada. But we do.

Our political system is now populated by legions of people who make their living from it. It is an industry. There is a professional class of political operators that consider this a game, and nothing more. You canfind them working in staff jobs with the prime minister, ministers, MP's, and political parties. They are consultants in government relations, public relations, advertising, marketing, law, polling, market research, telemarketing, and accounting firms. Some of them hang their hats in industry associations.

These people form a gladiator class who have done nothing in their lives except be in the world of politics, campaigning, and political organization. And it truly is a world apart. Stephen Harper himself was born and raised in that world. Before he became an MP himself, Mr. Harper was a staffer for an MP, was a paid employee of the Reform Party, and was President of a three-person office at the tax-payer subsidized National Citizens Coalition. Not unlike the current generation of gladiators, this is the only world he has ever really known.

There is a certain indefinable insidiousness to that culture. The concept of right and wrong are blurred because these political professionals consider it a "game." The basic notions of morality and the national interest do not enter into the equation. The stock and trade is simply to kill the enemy. It is all about getting the other guy. And doing that is just fine so long as you don't get caught. Partisans salivate. The game is advancing their party's interest, not substantive issues, or even predicated on a well-considered guiding philosophy. The guiding mantra is "my party, right or wrong." What's right for the country takes a back seat.

Liberals and New Democrats are responsible for more than their fair share of questionable tactics over the years. To suggest otherwise is itself a lie. Canadians aren't stupid and this whole matter should not be about partisan posturing and gamesmanship. The system is sick and the people in it work with a far different moral and ethical compass than the rest of us. Take them out of that poisonous culture and they are the nicest people you'll ever want to meet. Put normal people in it and they magically are sucked into a vortex where subterfuge and character assassination is just another day at the office.

I'm a Liberal, and one does not have to look too far back in Canadian history to know that we are far from pure as the driven snow. Neither are New Democrats. But this is a critical inflection point in the life of our democracy.

For its part, I want my party and its leaders to set a different, higher standard. That's why I want Liberals to acknowledge openly that we are part of the problem, and we must be part of the solution. Unless we do, what credibility can we possibly have with Canadians? This isn't a game. This is our country and the health of our democracy. Citizens must have confidence in it, and at the moment, we sure don't.

Our political culture cannot and will not be changed overnight. It shall take time. In the meantime, there must be measures to safeguard what is most fundamental in any democracy -- the sanctity of our votes.

Theoretically, at least, Elections Canada is supposed to referee the electoral process to ensure its fairness. While the good people of that agency try their best, they are hopelessly under-resourced to do that job. The Elections Canada Act was designed for another time. Parliamentarians should agree to reform the legislation to give it some real teeth and the resources and capacity to protect the integrity of the electoral system for the future.

The use oftechnology that didn't even exist a few years ago has created whole new avenues for political professionals to circumvent well-established norms of fairness and decency. For those predisposed to cheat -- and there are plenty out there -- room to undermine the integrity of the electoral system is never been broader.

Separate from a judicial inquiry, the Canada Elections Act must be modernized to protect us from fraudsters and those that play fast and loose with the spirit and intent of election laws and procedures. As pathetic as this might be, it has become painfully clear that we need to strengthen legislation to protect Canadians and our rights and freedoms from this "law and order" government.

We need a truly independent electoral authority that is provided with a substantially increased and multiyear appropriation from parliament. Perhaps the highly respected Jean-Pierre Kingsley could chair ablue ribbon task force tasked with providing the House of Commons recommendations on what a modernized Act could look like and what kind of budget Elections Canada would require. This should be at the top of the legislative agenda and a report should be tabled within a reasonable period of time.

The Commissioner of Elections should have strengthened statutory authority and powers of investigation and enforcement. A beefed-up Act would provide the Commissioner with forensic accountants and search warrant powers. Those powers are needed to get at the huge volume of "off balance sheet" activity that takes place in the shadows of all political parties.

And what if the Commissioner is not satisfied that the election has been conducted fairly? Or if evidence is found that systematic electoral fraud has been committed as to call the legitimacy of the government of the day into question? In such a case, our Head of State, the Governor General in his constitutional role, should have the authority to dissolve parliament and order new elections.

Having confidence in the sanctity of free and fair elections is fundamental to our democracy and a sacred trust that must not be tampered with.