Are the HarperCons trying to give themselves retroactive immunity for indictable offences?

It’s getting hard to keep up with the onslaught of scandal besetting the Harper regime.

Nine years in power is a long time in politics, and there seems to be an almost-inevitable tendency towards corruption and mismanagement and arrogant hubristic behaviour in any long-lasting regime, “democratically elected” or not.

And it’s certainly true that Harper & Co. have made very few friends in the press over the last decade. The national press corps is surely sick of being kept out of the loop by the PMO and only spoon-fed triumphalist press releases at the whim of our Fearless Leader. Regardless of each journalist’s individual political preferences, the tendency has to be anti-Con, and pro-anybody-more-enjoyable-to-cover.

I mean, he’s lost the freakin’ Sun. For years they’ve been against him. During the hoopla surrounding the Nigel Wright/Mike Duffy revelations, and Harper’s inconsistent and evasive statements about what he knew and when re: Wright’s $90 000 hush-money cheque, the Sun published a national editorial calling on Harper to resign, for Pete’s sake.

So perhaps it’s just that the press smell blood. A vulnerable Prime Minister with a weak economy facing reelection against a surging opposition makes an easy target. Maybe that explains the slew of controversies the HarperCons are busy ignoring these days.

In the last few weeks, we’ve had the CBC do a relatively unsubstantiated piece on how the government might consider using hate speech laws against critics of Israel; we’ve had a whole lot of noise and fury over the PMO disregarding its own rules on publishing images of Canadian soldiers fighting ISIS; and we’ve had a low-key addition to the clusterfudge of an omnibus budget bill that’s currently being plowed through Parliament granting the RCMP retroactive immunity for their illegal destruction of documents relating to the long-gun registry.

Now, don’t get me wrong – each of these stories is certainly newsworthy. I just don’t feel like the press would have covered them as voraciously three years ago, when Harper’s majority was still relatively fresh.

I also get the sense that they don’t really care about these stories much beyond getting experts to say unfavourable things about the government. It generates discussion in the comments and shares on social media, and that’s the business model these days, so that’s about as much as they feel they need to do.

A case in point is the RCMP omnibus scandal. I touched on this a few days ago but I think it’s worth going into in more detail.

The essence of the story is that in 2012, while Parliament was still debating legislation abolishing the long gun registry, the RCMP was already destroying records pertaining to the registry. Some of these records were the subject of ongoing Freedom of Information requests, and FOI watchdog Suzanne Legault explicitly warned then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews that, notwithstanding the legislation, the RCMP was expected to produce any records requested prior to the legislation’s passage on April 5, 2012. Toews assured Legault that the RCMP would abide by the law. But when it became clear that the RCMP had done no such thing, Legault began an investigation.

In March of this year, she advised the Justice Department that there were grounds to lay charges against the RCMP, and demanded that any remaining records be retained until her investigation could be completed. Those records include a separate registry on guns in Quebec, which had been subject to a court challenge by the province since the bill abolishing the long-gun registry had been implemented in 2012. When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in April that the federal government was legally entitled to destroy the registry, the RCMP went ahead with records destruction, completely disregarding Legault’s demands.

In May, the HarperCons introduced what may be their last major piece of legislation, the omnibus bill implementing the budget and a laundry list of other bills and amendments. Hidden deep within the bill was a measure to retroactively exempt the long gun registry from all freedom of information requests, backdated to the day they introduced the initial legislation on abolition in 2011.

(See here for a pretty detailed timeline.)

Now, this goes against some pretty basic principles of law and democracy. It’s a big-time scandal. The RCMP did the Harper government’s dirty work on this – the destruction of the long-gun registry has been a priority of the Conservatives pretty much since it was introduced in the 90s, and Harper was pretty clearly determined to make sure that every trace of it was eradicated. Now Harper is scratching the Mounties’ backs by retroactively legalizing their blatantly and knowingly illegal destruction of public records for partisan reasons.

Harper of course tried to play down the whole controversy by lying about it:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Mounties were just obeying the will of his Conservative majority government.

“The government, the Parliament of Canada, has already decided to abolish the long-gun registry,” Harper said at an event in Windsor, Ont. “The RCMP have acted fully within Parliament’s intention in destroying the data in the long gun registry.”

Harper asserted that the dispute is over contradictions between the Access to Information Act and his government’s legislation to end the long gun registry. That is not the case.

In fact, the dispute revolves around the RCMP refusing to disclose gun registry data while the Conservative bill was still being debated and not yet law. Nonetheless, the Conservative move will be popular with gun advocates.

Nice to see the Post calling a spade a spade. There’s two sides to every story; it’s just that in this case, the PM’s side happens to be self-evidently wrong. And it’s indicative of how bad this government is that there’s nothing surprising about Harper’s willingness to brazenly lie about the facts of the matter.

The Post’s assertion that gun nuts will applaud the legislation is debatable, though – the Star came to the opposite conclusion in their initial reporting on the issue, though they buried it at the very end of the article:

Some in the gun-owning community suspect the RCMP has actually preserved gun registry data for its own investigative purposes, and that the blanket, backdated exemption on record searches inserted into the omnibus budget bill is a means of keeping that revelation under wraps.

Well, which is it? Was the registry preemptively destroyed to keep any data from it out of the hands of gun control advocates and provincial governments interested in starting their own registries? Or was the destruction a fake-out by the RCMP, now abetted by a captured Harper government? Who’s benefitting from this? What’s being covered up?

And, perhaps more relevantly, why in the world is the government sticking its neck out like this for the RCMP?

The way I’m reading this – and I haven’t seen a word of speculation about this in the mainstream press, not one – Harper and/or senior government ministers are seriously worried that Legault’s investigation could lead to charges being levelled not just against senior Mounties, but against big-name politicians as well.

In my readings on the scandal, Vic Toews, Steven Blaney and Peter McKay all received specific, explicit warnings and/or instructions from Legault, warnings/instructions which were ignored. And don’t forget, this is a government where senior ministers don’t go to the bathroom without asking for the PMO’s permission first. I think this retroactive immunity is more for the HarperCons’ benefit than it is for the RCMP.

But media accounts of the case don’t dig past the surface-level facts and the critical quotes from opposition politicians. The government’s behaviour absolutely reeks of desperation here, but nobody seems to be asking what they’re so eager to keep covered up. Obviously we don’t know all the details yet, and perhaps we never will – but this has all the makings of a more massive scandal than the press’s perfunctorily snarky coverage would suggest.

We may yet find out more, though. Understandably, the Official Opposition is making a stink about this – it is an election year, after all! And Legault has played the press really well on this issue. The result is that today, amidst Parliamentary fury over the proposed law, it was announced that the Ontario Provincial Police will be making an inquiry into the affair.

The choice of police force is an interesting one. The last high-profile case I remember them handling was their takeover of TPS’ Project Brazen 2 investigation into the Rob Ford crack video scandal. The outcome of that investigation was seriously mixed, and mostly resulted in charges against low-level and peripheral figures in the case. Ford himself was never charged with a crime, though many observers thought there was a slam-dunk case against him.

It was the Minister of Justice, Peter McKay, who referred the case to Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which in turn selected the OPP to investigate the allegations. But it’s questionable that the OPP can be objective in the case – after all, former commissioner Julian Fantino is a Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister.

That being said, it would be a real challenge to find a police force in this country that could impartially investigate the “tough on crime” government.

The most likely outcome of all this is some reprimands of the Mounties, some fines and maybe charges against relatively low-level paper-pushing cops.

But I’ve got my fingers crossed for a real investigation. One that asks tough questions about motives, and about who in government knew what, and when, and what exactly the contents of these destroyed documents were.

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