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Voter-suppression scandal will be a test of Harper's leadership

Opposition attacks over the alleged voter-suppression scandal will fill Question Period Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday.

The NDP and Liberals believe they have smoking-gun proof that the Conservative Party broke all the rules and the law, too, in its effort to win last May's election. They don't have that proof, at least not yet.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a major problem. How he deals with it will tell us whether the comforts of majority government have dulled his political instincts.

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Elections Canada and the RCMP are investigating some pretty serious stuff in at least one riding, Guelph, where one or more Conservative party workers may have impersonated Elections Canada officials in an effort to lure Liberal voters to a non-existent polling station. How much of that kind of thing went on, and how high knowledge of the activity went in the party, is the all-important question.

People who know a lot about election campaigns, and who talked freely in exchange for confidentiality, point out several things. First, we can be reasonably certain that Mr. Harper, who is Leader of the Conservative Party as well as Prime Minister, knew nothing about what was going on in Guelph or elsewhere. Campaign officials protect their leaders from that sort of direct knowledge.

We can also be reasonably certain that Mr. Harper, either directly or through a trusted surrogate, is trying to get to the bottom of this before the police and Elections Canada get there first.

Political parties have developed sophisticated data bases that allow them to identify their own supporters in a riding as well as supporters of other parties. The federal Conservatives loathe the Liberal Party with an intensity not seen in other political arenas in this country. For some Tories, robo-calling supporters of the other guy in an effort to discourage their vote is just part of the game. Someone might have forgotten to tell someone that taking that one step farther by faking an Elections Canada announcement can lead to jail time.

So what exactly was going on? Was it going on in only a few ridings or, as the opposition maintains, was it more widespread? Did people on the ground act in the belief that the national campaign headquarters knew and approved, or would have approved had they known? Were they right to believe that? Mr. Harper will be demanding answers, and getting them.

With an election more than three years away, and with the security of a majority government, the Prime Minister will be tempted to protect loyal campaign workers who, from his standpoint, were acting from the highest of motives: to get him re-elected. And besides, we know whose values, attitudes and behaviour inspired this sort of activity: the Leader himself.

But it would be a grave mistake for Mr. Harper to try to slough this off.

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The Tories dominate federal politics because they are seen as the party that understands the importance of protecting the economy. Critics impale themselves on abuse-of-democracy issues, such as contempt of Parliament, treatment of Afghan detainees, the long-form census. None of that matters in a world where getting and keeping a job is job one.

But while most stories about Tories Behaving Badly roll off an electorate's back, actually trying to rig an election at the riding level is something else again. That sort of thing will get ordinary people thinking a party has become corrupt. And that's fatal.

We don't know that things ever went that far. If they didn't, then this story will fade away. But if they did, then Mr. Harper must act openly, swiftly and ruthlessly to demonstrate that he won't tolerate unethical – at least, beyond a certain point – or illegal campaign behaviour. His own future could depend on it.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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