I've refrained on commenting on the alleged Conservative convention fee brouhaha because the issue looked to be fairly murky. Now it appears that things are getting cleared up a bit, and the picture that's forming doesn't look good for Stephen Harper's party.
OTTAWA (CP) - While Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative party continued to insist they're on the right side of financing laws, former party officials and experts said they have a completely different understanding of the rules.
Harper told reporters Friday that his party followed financing rules when it didn't publicly disclose fees paid to attend a March 2005 convention - an amount that could represent as much as $1.7 million.
Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley has now asked to examine the party's financial records around the convention. The Liberals want the money from the convention fees put into a trust fund until Kingsley's review is over.
"All the laws have been obeyed and the Liberals will have to obey them as well - that's the tough part," Harper said as he left an event to promote the lowering of the GST.
Oooh, nice little parting shot against the Liberals, there Stephen, but I am afraid that despite your insistance, it's is looking more and more like you guys did indeed break the law, or, to put it in terms your party would use were this a Liberal or NDP issue, built a culture of corruption and entitlement that led you to believe you were above the law. Despite the Cons protestations of innocence, past bigwigs from the Conservative Party's previous incarnations say the PM is spouting nonsense.
Former officials from both the Progressive Conservative party and the Canadian Alliance, the parties that created the Conservative party, said the common practice they followed was to disclose convention fees paid by their members as political donations.
"I'm absolutely positive we always gave out political receipts, minus the amount paid for meals, but everything else was always treated as a political donation," said Bruck Easton, former president of the Progressive Conservative party. "That was quite frankly an important part of getting people to our convention."
Rick Anderson, a top organizer and executive member of both the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance, said his recollection is that both parties followed the same practice as the Liberals and NDP.
"My memory is that everybody one way or another wrote a cheque out to the party and got a receipt for it," Anderson said.
Anderson said he recalls meetings where Reform officials "agonized" over the rules governing party finances and at which they ultimately decided "as far as I can recall, choosing to do what everybody else did."
Doing what everyone else does - or common practice - is an important part of the party financing system, points out Leslie Seidle, a former executive at Elections Canada.
He said there's an elaborate set of common practices and legal opinions the parties agree to over the decades.
Seidle, who is now with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, said the Conservative argument that they didn't need to disclose the fees because the convention didn't make a profit doesn't hold water.
"If you carried that logic forward, you could argue that if you made a contribution to a political party and the party was in the hole for the year in question, it wouldn't necessarily need to report all the donations that were the difference from being in the hole and not in the hole," said Seidle.
"The important thing is there is money in, and a service out...it's a kind of income and expense issue."
Another student of Canadian electoral law, University of Windsor Professor Heather MacIvor, said she was stunned to hear the party's explanation on failing to disclose the fees. MacIvor recently wrote a critique of the government's new financing laws, part of its much vaunted Federal Accountability Act.
"Wait a minute folks, you're trying to say you're cleaning up politics and you brought in this seriously draconian tightening of the contribution rules, and now we find out you didn't disclose a few million dollars of contributions, which every other political party in this country has treated as a contribution for the purpose of the contribution rules?" MacIvor said.
"That's not on."
If this does blow up, Harper is going to stink to high heaven. He's been front and centre in strongly denying these charges, despite the efforts of his handlers to insulate him from the press. (Hiding behind a convenience store, Mr. Harper? Not very prime ministerial of you.) Now every charge of Liberal corruption Harper flings will bear the unmistakable taint of hypocrisy.