the in and out scheme clothespins for idiots

Joe Goudie never knew his name was involved in a scandal till he heard it at the local coffee shop. A former Newfoundland provincial cabinet minister, Goudie was a Conservative candidate in the 2006 federal election.

Joe Goudie never knew his name was involved in a scandal till he heard it at the local coffee shop.

A former Newfoundland provincial cabinet minister, Goudie was a Conservative candidate in the 2006 federal election. In 2008 he learned that his name was on the radio, connected to a scandal about “money or something.”

The scandal in question was the Conservatives’“in-and-out” financing scheme. In order to circumvent Elections Canada rules limiting the amount a party can spend, the Conservatives concocted a scheme to disguise federal spending as local spending. It worked like this. Candidates who had not reached their limit in fundraising received a payment into their campaign bank accounts which they were instructed to return immediately to headquarters.

A number of candidates recognized this for what it was, a scam, and refused to have anything to do with it. Others were puzzled and had to be browbeaten into accepting their part in the scheme. Many others simply went along, assured by party brass that it was all above board. Most report that the money appeared in their accounts unannounced, followed by instructions to return it straight away. No word yet on whether the party sent along clothespins for the candidates’ noses, but clearly some smelled a rat while others either missed the aroma or ignored it.

Four senior Conservatives, including two senators, are facing criminal charges for their roles in the scheme. One of them, campaign manager Senator Doug Finley, got himself an account on the website Twitter this week, and immediately began to “tweet” about the charges. To tweet is not, by the way, to imitate bird calls, but to publish one’s scattered thoughts, often in cryptic computerese. Here’s an example of Finley’s tweets: “Anyone who thinks PMSH was that deeply involved in campaign is an idiot. Campaign makes millions of decisions in 35 days. Think.”

PMSH means Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Apparently non-idiots among us are to exonerate him on the grounds that he was too busy to know about the in-and-out scheme. Bear in mind that this was the 2006 election, where Canada unceremoniously dumped the Liberals, mainly because of the Sponsorship Scandal.

At that time it was widely considered reasonable to hold Paul Martin responsible for the fact that some Quebec Liberals siphoned off some of the money that was intended for the referendum campaign. In the in-and-out case, the four people who have been charged are members of Harper’s inner circle – much closer to the PM than any Liberal who faced charges.

Well Senator, there are idiots, and there are idiots.

Failure to recognize the prime minister is a busy man during election time is one kind of idiocy, but it falls far short of another kind, what we might call moral idiocy. Here’s how to be a moral idiot: give the in-and-out scheme a moment’s thought, and then convince yourself it is simply “an accounting matter.”

Everybody fights an election under the same rules. Those rules limit campaign spending. Use a cute accounting trick to get around that spending limit, and go over budget by $1.2 million. Do you find anything fishy about this? If not, see moral idiot category.

Now consider to what end this fishy business was put.

It was done not to enrich a handful of crooks, but to subvert democracy. Election rules exist to protect the democratic process. Those Quebec Liberals we all despised so much were stealing money. The in-an-out fund was about stealing an election.

That’s not to say the Conservatives wouldn’t have won that election without the fraud.

In the grand scheme of a federal election, could a million misspent bucks cause the ruling party to lose 32 seats? It’s something we will never know for certain.

What we do know, whether Finley and his partners in crime go to jail or not, is that the election results were tarnished by the misuse of election funds. It may be the battered Liberals had no hope of winning that election anyway, but the Conservatives ascertained victory by means that almost any idiot can see were fraudulent.

The Harper minority has limped along from scandal to scandal for five years, propped up by the instability of their opponents. Will this be the story that kicks the crutches out from under them? Who knows?

Worse governments have survived worse scandals.

The Conservatives are said to be millions ahead of their rivals in fundraising. Even if they spend the money legally, it should run to plenty of clothespins.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.