OTTAWA - The Harper government is promoting a bill that would allow political candidates to miss deadlines for repaying campaign loans, perpetuating a situation that the Conservatives have denounced as illegal when it comes to Liberal leadership debts.
Bill C-29 is aimed at making it harder for candidates to borrow money, forcing them to rely much more heavily on banks than on individual supporters. But it does not impose any new constraints on the repayment of loans.
The bill passed at report stage Tuesday with the support of Conservative, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs. It is expected to receive final Commons approval next week.
It would give candidates three years - twice as long as the current deadline - to repay campaign loans. And it would maintain the current rules for granting extensions to candidates who fail to meet the deadline.
For the past few weeks and as recently as Monday, Tory MPs have harangued Liberal Leader Stephane Dion and his former rivals over their failure to pay off their leadership loans by the June 3 deadline. They've suggested that the Liberals are breaking the law and that Elections Canada, by granting extensions, is turning a blind eye to Liberal illegality.
"If (Dion) does not repay these debts by the June 3 deadline, they become illegal donations over the donation limit." Pierre Poilievre, the Tory pointman on the issue, recently told the Commons.
"The only escape is if Elections Canada steps in to protect the Liberal leader with preferential treatment and an extension."
Last week, after Dion and eight other former rivals sought extensions to pay off their campaign debts, Poilievre was at it again.
"What penalty has Elections Canada applied to this breach?" he demanded.
That outrage seemed to have vanished Tuesday as Tory MPs rose one after another to support C-29, perpetuating identical rules for granting extensions.
"They don't want to be coherent necessarily, they just want to score points," said Dion.
"Canadians will not be fooled by them. . . They are only about attacking, attacking, attacking."
Tory officials suggested that other provisions in the bill would make it less problematic if candidates were given extra time in future to pay off loans.
Under the bill, candidates would only be able to borrow a maximum of $1,100 from individual supporters - the same limit as applies to individual donations. Hence, if the loan were to go unpaid, becoming a de facto donation, it would not exceed the donation limit.
Larger loans could still be obtained but would have to come from accredited financial institutions at commercial rates.