Wednesday, December 27, 2006

It's a big deal, whether Harper admits it or not

For months, Stephen Harper tried to argue that delegate fees to the Conservative convention did not constitute donations under the Canada Elections Act -- yet no sooner did he become Prime Minister than he attempted to change the rules to make such fees donations. This was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the Liberal Party which was gearing up for the convention earlier this month -- after all, he reasoned, the rules don't apply to him but he'll make it apply to his enemies.

The Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, didn't exactly care for Harper's explanation and demanded the Cons submit new financial statements to take into account the disputed delegate fees. Yesterday, Harper admitted his party broke the law and returned some excess donations to their respective contributors. The numbers: $539,915 in unreported donations, $913,750 in "other revenue" (whatever that is), and $1.45 million in "other expenses." More significant is that one of the contributors who broke the $5,400 contribution limit was none other than Harper himself. $456 over to be exact.

Does anyone expect Harper is going to get a sanction greater than a slap on the wrist? If an ordinary independent local candidate went over the spending limit in his or her district by so much as a dollar, s/he and his/her auditor would go to prison. If my reading of the statute is correct, the maximum penalty for this particular offence by an individual is five years imprisonment, a fine of $5000 plus, if the judge orders it, restitution. The Chief Electoral Officer could also, if he deems appropriate, liquidate the party's assets if it found to have deliberately filed a false financial statement.

In a minority situation, going that far would probably create a constitutional crisis. The law is the law however, and Harper should voluntarily pay the fine before he is ticketed or indicted.

What really gets me, though, is that with the new spending limits in the new year, the maximum contribution has been slashed all the way down to just $1100, with no inflation adjuster. Rest assured, money will be funneled in other ways -- whether it's through lobbyists or constituency associations -- even with a total ban on corporate and union donations. Had he gotten caught under the new rules, jail time would have been a given.

In the end, Harper's promise to run an ethical government has all been for naught. The Conservatives have proven to be just as crafty with accounting as the Liberals were in Sponsorgate. That can only lead to more cynicism and an even lower turnout come the next election. For shame.

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