Blog by John Miller

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When a PM sues

Ontario Superior Court File 08-CV-41020 isn’t attracting nearly the attention it should.


Submitted to court on March 3 by Richard G. Dearden, the five-page Notice of Libel represents the first time in Canadian history that a sitting prime minister has sued the Official Opposition.

That alone should put it high on the agenda of every political columnist who covers the House of Commons. Yet, strangely, not one of them has so far chosen to write about it. I find that chilling, and very worrisome for our democracy.

Dearden, of course, is the lawyer representing Stephen Harper, who has chosen to sue the Liberal Party of Canada for statements appearing on the party’s website alleging that the Prime Minister knew of a financial offer to secure the vote of the late Independent MP Chuck Cadman.

According to the Notice of Libel, the statements are “false and devastatingly defamatory” and might cause people to think Harper “was involved in illegal activities, knowingly breached the Criminal Code of Canada, knowingly violated a Standing Order of the House of Commons, committed a high crime, subverted Canada’s constitution, was guilty or wrongdoing and is a criminal.” Click here to read the Notice of Libel.

Harper asked that the offending articles be removed from the website, and that Liberal Leader Stephane Dion read a seven-line apology in the House of Commons. Dion has refused to do that, although the Liberal party appears to have called in its own lawyers and toned down some of the language on its website. For example, a headline saying “Harper Knew of Conservative Bribery” was changed to “Harper Needs to Answer Canadians’ Questions.”

This strange case has prompted so many unanswered questions that it’s difficult to know where to start. What does Harper hope to accomplish by resorting to the courts? His explanations of what he knew and when he knew it, quite frankly, have been weak so far. He has faced numerous questions in the House of Commons and will undoubtedly face more. There have been calls for a public inquiry. Will the lawsuit provide the Prime Minister with an excuse to avoid answering his critics in public?

There are other questions that seem to be in the public interest to know – and know now. How long will we have to wait to find out what Harper was talking about when he seemed to admit on tape that he knew about a Conservative financial offer to Cadman to secure his vote on the eve of a historic 2005 parliamentary showdown?

Libel negotiations can be lengthy. There is the likelihood that MPs will invoke parliamentary privilege to avoid being questioned in examination for discovery. Harper did just that last year after longtime Tory Alan Riddell sued him and the Conservative Party for allegedly libeling him during the last federal election. Courts have ruled that MPs aren’t compelled to appear at legal proceedings while the House of Commons is in session. Nor do they have to appear within 40 days of the end of a session.

Lots of things for a parliamentary columnist to write about, huh?

But a scan of the most recent Ottawa columns written by journalists at The Globe and Mail, National Post, SunMedia and the Toronto Star shows that not one of them has addressed Harper’s lawsuit. Not one.

At the Globe, Jeffrey Simpson is on holiday, but his fill-in Lawrence Martin has written about Afghanistan . Rex Murphy, who often tackles political issues, wrote instead about Elliot Spitzer’s indiscretions.

At the Toronto Star, Chantal Hebert and James Travers have devoted their most recent Ottawa columns to Judge Gomery’s reforms, the federal byelections, a doomed private member’s bill on RESPs, and the finance minister’s snub to Ontario .

In the National Post, John Ivison focused on the imprisonment of a Canadian woman in Mexico .

Even the SunMedia’s legal columnist Alan Shanoff, an experienced libel lawyer, wrote his weekend column on compensation for victims of crime (NOTE: Shanoff has subsequently written two fine columns on the PM's libel action, but questions still abound long after the matter was settled out of court).

Asleep at the switch? Your guess is as good as mine.