Harper’s libel suit against Liberals and Canada’s open society

Mar 3rd, 2008 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

A dozen days before the Canadian federal election that brought the present Harper Conservative minority government to office, Gillian Wong of the Associated Press reported on how: “US billionaire philanthropist George Soros said … that Singapore could not be an open society as long as its leaders used libel suits against opposition politicians … The use of libel … can be a tremendous hindrance to freedom of expression,’ Soros said in response to questions at a seminar. Obviously, Singapore doesn’t qualify as an open society.'” Ms. Wong went on to note that the “US State Department and Amnesty International have previously accused Singapore’s top politicians of using defamation lawsuits to remove their opponents from public life.” And here in Canada some two years later Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s threatened libel suit against the Liberal Party and three of its most prominent MPs, on March 3, 2008, raises some similar questions about the status of our open society today.

1. Notice of libel …

It is probably worth noting that so far Mr. Harper’s legal counsel, Richard Dearden of the Gowlings firm, has simply sent a formal “Notice of Libel” to Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Ralph Goodale, and the Liberal Party of Canada. A libel lawyer on CBC Newsworld has advised that for every five notices of this sort he receives on behalf of clients, only one finally gets to court as part of a serious case.

In this Notice of Libel Mr. Harper’s counsel complains about two articles on the Liberal Party of Canada website – “Harper Knew of Conservative Bribery” (February 29, 2008), and “Harper Must Come Clean About Allegations of Conservative Bribery, Liberals say” (February 28, 2008).

The “bribery” allegations here refer to a story in a new biography of the late great federal MP Chuck Cadman, by BC author Tom Zytaruk. Cadman, a former Conservative then sitting as an Independent, finally voted to sustain the former Liberal minority government of Paul Martin on May 19, 2005. But according to a story told by his widow, Dona Cadman, to author Zytaruk, “two Conservative agents met with her husband two days before the vote and offered him a million-dollar life insurance policy in exchange for his support.”

Author Tom Zytaruk also interviewed Stephen Harper in connection with this part of his Cadman biography. He has made available some tape with Mr. Harper commenting on the subject of his party’s meeting with Mr. Cadman in May 2005. As explained by the CBC, “I don’t know the details. I know that there were discussions,’ Harper says on the tape … Later, he explains the offer to Cadman was only to replace financial considerations he might lose due to an election’ and it was carried out by people who were legitimately representing the party.'”

2. At least two key problems …

Some Liberals have viewed Mr. Harper’s taped comments to author Tom Zytaruk as “a tacit admission that a bribe was made.” If true, this would, it seems clear enough, be illegal and even criminal activity. The burden of Mr. Harper’s complaints about the two recent articles on the Liberal Party website is that they do come to such a conclusion – wrongly on his assertion and outside Parliament itself, where all members are protected against charges of libel.

Even before Dona Cadman’s clarifications today (Monday, March 3, 2008), after the Notice of Libel was sent (apparently quite early this morning), there were at least two key problems with the story in Mr. Zytaruk’s forthcoming book. The first is what kind of insurance company in its right mind would provide a “million-dollar life insurance policy” to a man with terminal cancer like Chuck Cadman, whose life was already on a very short lease?

One answer to this question was suggested by the ever inventive Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale, who “asked whether the Conservatives had perhaps offered to top up Cadman’s parliamentary insurance plan in exchange for his vote. He noted that when MPs cease to be MPs they can keep their insurance but the premiums go up and benefits go down.” But the issue generally remained obscure – a sign that the story told in author Tom Zytaruk’s forthcoming book was at best not altogether watertight.

A second puzzle was why the late great Chuck Cadman’s widow, Dona Cadman, who was the main source for the story, was at the moment also scheduled to run for the Conservatives in the BC riding of Surrey North, in the next federal election, whenever that might prove to be? I.e., why would someone telling a story about how the Conservatives were possibly (even probably?) involved in an effort to bribe her husband even want to run for the party in a subsequent election?

3. Dona Cadman’s personal statement on March 3 …

This second puzzle was in some ways clarified – and in others deepened – by a statement Dona Cadman put on her website today (again March 3): “I’m a little bit surprised at the level of reaction to the disclosures in Tom Zytaruk’s book and I guess that’s probably because it was put to rest in my mind, when I discussed the matter with Stephen Harper, 2 years ago. At that time, I recall specifically asking him if he was aware of a million dollar insurance policy offer, that upset Chuck so much … He looked me straight in the eyes and told me he had no knowledge of an insurance policy offer. I knew he was telling me the truth; I could see it in his eyes. He said, yes he’d had some discussions with two individuals about asking Chuck to rejoin the party, but he’d told them they were wasting their time trying to convince Chuck … From that point forward. I didn’t regard it as a “Party” initiative, but rather; the overzealous indiscretion of a couple of individuals. whose identity, Chuck never revealed to me.”

So … you might say Stephen Harper is essentially right? Or something like that? But a number of unsettling drips of information remain – even if you actually like and support Stephen Harper (which, we should no doubt make clear for any who may not already know, we do not, though up until this point we have been ready enough to admire him for one or two things he has done or tried to do for the good of Canada, and so forth).

4. Reading between the lines …

There has been, e.g., some testimony from Dona Cadman’s daughter – and even her son-in-law – that makes you wonder about the candor of her March 3 statement, in the immediate wake of Mr. Harper’s Notice of Libel, and so forth.

Note these late February comments from Jodi Cadman, Dona’s daughter, who “said the only reason she had decided to go public and confirm the offer was because Harper and others were calling her mother a liar. She said she is disappointed but not surprised by the government’s reaction … There’s a bad feeling on a personal level with a few people, Stephen Harper and others, on this. But I’m not shocked at all. They are fighting for their own lives,’ she said …

“Jodi Cadman said she has a bad taste in her mouth over the whole experience, and that she thinks her mother should reconsider her Conservative candidacy for the next federal election in Surrey North, the riding her husband held. I think she is mulling it over, as well she should,’she said. They are calling her a liar.’ [This was a point Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff had made in Parliament.] She also said she would not be surprised if party brass ousted her mother as the Conservative nominee. Ryan Sparrow, Conservative party spokesman, didn’t rule that out. As of now, Dona Cadman is the candidate in that riding. That’s all I will say right now,’ he said in an interview.”

This talk can seem somewhat provocative as well, when you note that up until Dona Cadman’s March 3, 2008 personal statement on her website, the most recent entry under “Latest News” was on March 19, 2007. (And the full string of Latest News dates is: July 12, 2006 [which begins things with the announcement “Dona Cadman seeking Tory nomination”] ; October 14, 2006 ; February 20, 2007 ; February 26, 2007 ; March 8, 2007 ; March 14, 2007 ; March 19, 2007 ; March 3, 2008. Why, you can’t help but wonder, a little at any rate, has Mrs. Cadman had no Latest News to announce between March 19, 2007 and March 3, 2008?)

5. The unsettling documentation that remains …

Finally, regardless of what deeper truths Dona Cadman or her children may or may not be offering us, whenever, the most unsettling piece of documentation to emerge from l’affaire Cadman to date is still the audio and transcript of Tom Zytaruk’s actual 2005 interview on the matter with Stephen Harper, now made available by Canadian Press.

There is certainly no definitive proof here of any bribery or other clearly illegal activity on the part of Stephen Harper or anyone else in his Conservative Party of Canada. But it is also not at all impossible to see why some Liberals (and others as well, no doubt) have viewed Mr. Harper’s taped comments to author Tom Zytaruk as “a tacit admission that a bribe was made.”

What is on this tape itself certainly does not seem, in our judgment at any rate, at all commensurate with the vast indignation Mr. Harper has shown on this matter. It is unsettling enough to warrant some reasonable questioning of him, which if he were as pure as the driven snow as he likes to claim, he ought to take in much more of a spirit of good humour and free and democratic understanding.

It may well be, as the libel lawyer who appeared on CBC Newsworld this afternoon (again, March 3, 2008) seemed to suggest, that what is on Tom Zytaruk’s 2005 taped interview with Mr. Harper – along with all of what Mrs. Cadman and her daughter and son-in-law have now told us – does not by itself quite sustain the charges in the two articles on the Liberal website mentioned in Mr. Harper’s Notice of Libel. (And the website may or may not share the immunity to libel charges enjoyed by members of the party when they speak in Parliament?)

But what even the little that is clearly known right now does make quite clear is that there are some reasonable grounds for concern about just what did happen with Chuck Cadman and the Conservative Party in May 2005, on the part of we the people of Canada.

Especially when you think of the kinds of things that were said by many Conservatives in connection with the so-called “Adscam” that helped give them their current minority government, they are being suspiciously thin-skinned at the very least when they start launching libel lawsuits on this issue. And it is easy enough to wonder why, even if you are not a rabid Liberal or other opposition partisan. Are there some still deeper truths that the Notice of Libel is just o-so-cleverly meant to distract us from, etc, etc?

6. The political fallout …

Neither Thomas Walkom of the Toronto Star nor Liberal guru Warren Kinsella are noted Conservative partisans. Yet both have thrown cold water on the extent to which l’affaire Cadman will cause ultimate political problems for the Harper minority government. They may be right. But we are in any case hoping that Prime Minister Harper’s decision to launch or at least threaten a libel suit against his Liberal opponents will finally win the contempt it so richly deserves.

Mr. Kinsella has said that the Harper lawsuit “doesn’t really surprise me … Given how unusual it is for a Prime Minister to sue a Leader of the Opposition for libel – I don’t know if that has ever happened, in fact – I’d hazard a guess that this isn’t the action of someone who fears a full airing of the facts … Again, this scandal’ didn’t ever seem like one, to me. A million dollar insurance policy on a man who was known to be dying? A book on the same subject being flogged hither and yon? All of it suggested some caution was in order, n’est-ce pas?”

Mr. Kinsella is without doubt a very clever fellow. But no one is ever right all the time in such matters. On TV tonight as well it was reported that parliamentary researchers have found it very difficult to come up with any historical precedent for a Prime Minister to sue a Leader of the Opposition for libel in Canada. And to us this suggests not so much the action of someone who has no fear of a full airing of the facts, as a rather desperate measure adopted by someone who actually may have something rather deeper to hide – and who has scant respect for or even understanding of the best traditions of parliamentary democracy in this country.

In fact, there are some recent examples outside Canada of governments using libel suits to try to silence pesky opposition critics. There is, e.g., the case of Singapore noted up front here – which has drawn criticism from the likes of George Soros and the US State Department and Amnesty International.

Similarly, in 2007 President Roh of South Korea sued Lee Myung-bak, presidential candidate of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), and three other key post-holders of the party, for libel – “the first time in the nation’s constitutional history for the presidential office to charge a leading opposition candidate with a crime.” In 2008 in Malta the Minister for Urban Development and Roads, Jesmond Mugliett, filed a libel suit against Opposition Leader Alfred Sant – who had charged that Mr Mugliett’s “position as minister was in direct conflict with the operations of a company in which he was a shareholder.”

We think that George Soros is simply and unquestionably altogether correct about all such cases. The “use of libel” in this context of ordinary democratic political debate “can be a tremendous hindrance to freedom of expression.” And no political system that indulges in such behaviour can properly “qualify as an open society” (or even as what our own Canadian Constitution Act 1982 calls a “free and democratic society”).

Even if Mr. Harper is entirely right in all his factual assertions about what did or did not happen with regard to Chuck Cadman and the Conservative Party back in 2005, he has been in our view entirely wrong in his decision to move towards a libel suit against his Liberal opponents. This only cheapens, coarsens, and indeed even corrupts our free and democratic Canadian political traditions in quite disturbing and even unprecedented ways.

In Parliament earlier today Mr. Harper said: “The Liberal leader and his party published on a website allegations of criminal activity on my part … Mr. Speaker, that will not help the problems of the Liberal leader, this will become the biggest error in judgment of his career … The truth is that this will prove to be in court the biggest mistake the leader of the Liberal Party ever made.” To us Mr. Harper has already made the biggest mistake in his career by threatening and perhaps even launching a libel suit on this matter. He has crossed a line that no real democrat – and in our view at least no one who was really as confident of his ultimate rectitude as Mr. Harper currently pretends – would either dare or feel the need to cross. And we can only hope that we the Canadian people will in our ultimate wisdom send him back to the opposition benches forever, where he has now made unmistakably clear he belongs.

Leave Comment