February 13, 2006
Referendums around the world are conducted under the principle that opposing camps in the sovereignty concerned should dispose of equal means to defend their options during the referendum campaign. Quebec's Referendum Act, based on the British model used for the Common Market vote in 1975, enshrined that principle in a series of reforms adopted in the late 1970s under Quebec Premier René Lévesque. Those reforms cleaned up the political process by ridding Quebec of the slush funds that had vitiated politics for years. Jean Chrétien even said that political party funding reforms adopted later throughout Canada were borrowed from René Lévesque.
Although the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Referendum Act in October 1997, it described the objective of equal means as "highly laudable" adding: "The system set up by the legislature to ensure a certain equality of resources between the options submitted to a referendum and thereby enhance democratic expression would become ineffective if independent individuals and groups were allowed unlimited spending or spending with a ceiling similar to that of the national committees."
Option Canada could be described as the return of the electoral slush fund. It was created and managed secretly - Quebec's Chief Returning Officer learned of its existence when a Montreal daily broke the story in March 1997. It was granted money under the false pretext of supporting linguistic duality. The accounting documents Normand Lester and I obtained show that those who dreamed it up had the clear intention of violating the Quebec Referendum Act by funnelling some $5-million into the NO campaign and thereby almost doubling that side's resources. Most of the money went into the ad campaign, foreshadowing the ad scam that has rocked the Liberal government for years now. The secretive pay rolling of campaign "volunteers" also foreshadowed the wads of cash used for similar purposes as Judge Gomery revealed.
Option Canada thus differs from earlier slush funds in that it was a creation of the Government of Canada run by the Liberal Party. That is the crux of the problem because it is a case of the government secretly and illegally funding a movement in order to defeat a legitimate and democratic political movement. Some might slough that off saying that it was done to save Canada. That being the case however, what principle will they be able to raise to oppose similar underhanded manoeuvres aimed at defeating other legitimate democratic movements elsewhere in the country?
The knee-jerk reaction to the Option Canada scandal has been to talk of the "$25-million" or the "$100-million" the Quebec Government supposedly spent to promote secession (the figure keeps growing). Cynics see all Quebec Government initiatives regarding its political future as promoting secession, including federalist premier Robert Bourassa's Bélanger-Campeau Commission following the demise of Meech. The studies and the commission conducted by Jacques Parizeau's Government in 1994 and 1995 however were up front and fully open to public and media scrutiny. Such initiatives are the prerogative of governments. Those launched by Jacques Parizeau resemble the plethora of unity-oriented commissions launched by Ottawa over the past 45 years or even Newfoundland's Royal Commission in 2002 and 2003 on that province's future. Likening them to the Option Canada slush fund is like saying apples and oranges grow on the same trees.
Funding of the Conseil de la souveraineté du Québec is also raised to justify Option Canada. But Quebec's Chief Returning Officer investigated the Conseil and concluded that it had respected the spirit and the letter of the Referendum Act. The same could not be said about Option Canada where they met a wall of denial until the accounting documents turned up.
The mother of all arguments is then advanced, the spoiled NO ballots in Montreal-area ridings. That issue was addressed diligently and thoroughly by the Chief Returning Officer immediately after the referendum. Former Quebec Chief Justice Alan B. Gold's report, vetted by three respected law professors from three different universities, concluded that the spoiled ballots resulted from the reprehensible but isolated actions of a few individuals working independently and that no evidence was found indicating a widespread plot to take away people's right to vote. Moreover, the law was changed shortly thereafter to prevent recurrence.
On balance, government initiated slush funds and law breaking is obviously much worse than the local reprehensible actions of a few individuals, especially in a country that has made referendum clarity an article of faith.
Robin Philpot is coauthor with Normand Lester of "Les secrets d'Option Canada" and author of "Le referendum vole"