03/08/2012 12:53 EST | Updated 05/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Barbs fly as MPs debate NDP motion to increase Elections Canada powers

OTTAWA - The Conservative government backs an NDP motion promising greater investigative powers for Elections Canada, but stopped short Thursday of committing to changing the rules within six months.

NDP critic David Christopherson says if the Harper government later reneges, there will be "hell to pay."

But given the current furor in parliament over widespread allegations of election fraud, it may be difficult for non-partisan observers to tell the difference. Indeed, debate over the NDP motion — which all parties in the Commons claim to support — resulted in a bitter, day-long partisan sparring match Thursday.

The motion will be voted on Monday in the House of Commons.

New Democrats want the chief electoral officer to have the same power as his provincial counterparts to force parties to provide proof, such as receipts, in support of their campaign financial returns. And the NDP amended its own motion Thursday to make that new power retroactive to previous elections.

Those campaign returns are the basis for huge taxpayer rebates to parties — about $30 million per election — yet currently cannot be independently verified by the elections watchdog.

A Conservative-dominated committee formally rejected a similar proposal just last month, but the government suddenly reversed course this week after opposition parties claimed that rejection was proof of a cover-up in the investigation of fraudulent phone calls in last spring's election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled the government's change of course with a single phrase in French during Wednesday's question period, but has refused to elaborate.

Bob Rae, Liberal interim leader, attempted to get Harper on the record Thursday, asking directly whether the government will enact legislation, within six months, that gives the chief electoral officer retroactive powers.

"Once again, the government has been very clear in its decision on the matters before the House today," the prime minister responded.

Harper's cryptic response left New Democrats and Liberals reading the tea leaves from the day-long Commons debate on the motion — a debate that focused heavily on scandals, past and present, real and imagined, and seldom touched on the statutory powers of the federal elections watchdog.

Rae made a claim of subpoenas being issued against the Conservative party in the robocall affair, which the governing party insisted was factually incorrect.

New Democrat Don Davies used the debate to call for a public inquiry into the voter suppression allegations.

Dean Del Mastro, Harper's parliamentary secretary, went on an extended rant about the Liberal sponsorship scandal, which is now 15 years old.

"I would suggest it is the opposition fanning the flames of that hysteria," said Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to the House leader — before accusing the opposition of being "complicit in assisting American and international left-wing groups (to) try and persuade Elections Canada that there are (election) complaints."

Several speakers noted that when it comes to voter suppression, the ugly spectacle of MPs tossing around indiscriminate accusations of sleaze probably does as much as a fraudulent phone call.

Conservative backbencher Michael Chong appeared to be directing his comments at both sides of the aisle when he warned his fellow parliamentarians against mixing up hardball tactics, past scandals and the current Elections Canada investigation.

"I think it brings disrepute on all of us here in the House when we start conflating that debate," said Chong.