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Stephen Harper's very bad day: Charges against Dean Del Mastro and a new PBO report

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Poor Stephen Harper.

It's just days since he pulled Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro out of the dog house and appointed him Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Northern Economic Development and the development agencies for Southern and Northern Ontario.

Now the Commissioner of Canada Elections, Mr. Yves Côté, has laid four charges under the Canada Elections Act against Del Mastro.

Parliamentary secretaries are supposed to be understudies to cabinet ministers.

They answer questions in the House when Ministers are absent, promote the government's positions on House Committees, and are generally supposed to be available when needed.

The current Prime Minister has used the parliamentary secretary role in a number of fairly novel ways.

One of those ways is for the parliamentary secretaries to act as, in the words of one observer,  "political commissars."

For political and regional balance reasons Harper has had to appoint some ministers who may not be 100 per cent "politically reliable," as it were. In such cases, he can count on his handpicked parliamentary secretaries to keep an eye on things -- to make sure ministers do not stray too far off message.

Another of Harper's chosen roles for parliamentary secretaries has been that of attack dog.

It has been the job of certain key parliamentary secretaries to deflect opposition questions about Conservative scandals by vigorously and aggressively throwing dirt back at the opposition parties.

For a while now, Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre has been the uncrowned king of the attack dogs.

But this summer Harper rewarded him with a cabinet post. Believe it or not, Poilievre is now Minister in charge of Democratic Reform.

As a cabinet minister, the Ottawa MP's utility as an attack dog will be somewhat limited.

Dean Del Mastro was another attack dog, for a while, especially at the height of the so-called "robo-call" controversy, but he was silenced when news broke of his possible election law violations.

For some reason, the Prime Minister thought the Peterborough MP was in the clear, and earlier this month put him back on the parliamentary secretary gravy train (to use Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's quaint phrase).

Today, Elections Canada dropped its bombshell.

The 'level-playing field principle and the requirement for transparency'

The charges against the Conservative MP are not small beer, although in the big scheme of things the amount of money at issue is hardly huge.

Del Mastro is charged, in Commissioner Yves Coté's words, with "incurring election expenses in an amount more than the election expenses limit; providing the Chief Electoral Officer with an electoral campaign return that omitted to report a contribution of $21,000.00 and instead reported an election expense of $1,575.00; and with willfully exceeding the contribution limit for a candidate in his own election campaign."

Financially it is all peanuts compared to the billions that escape the Canada Revenue Agency annually -- and other similar outrages.

However, there are bigger issues at stake than mere money.

As the Commissioner puts it in his news release: "In our electoral system, it is fundamentally important that the spending and contribution limits enacted by Parliament be respected. It is also essential that the reports and information provided to Elections Canada be accurate and truthful. The level-playing field principle and the requirement for transparency call for nothing less. We will continue to be vigilant to ensure that these rules are observed."

No doubt the Conservatives are busy preparing their talking points on this: 'we are convinced Mr. Del Mastro will be proven innocent;' 'Elections Canada is always picking on Conservatives;' 'the other parties have done all sorts of electoral misdeeds;' 'no government has done as much as this one to bring accountability and transparency to Ottawa,' and so forth.

Hard to imagine Canadians will buy it this time.

It was this same Prime Minister who, mere months ago, said he had personally examined Senator Pamela Wallin's expenses and found them be legitimate. Wallin has since paid back well over $100,000 of those legitimate expenses, and the RCMP is now investigating the whole matter.

The only good news for the Prime Minister in today's story about Del Mastro is that it might deflect from other bad news that broke today, specifically, a surprisingly forthright and frank report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO).

In replacing the feisty and fiercely independent Kevin Page, most who watch these things thought the Conservatives would choose a lap dog rather than a watch dog.

And there was some indication that the new Budget Officer, Jean-Denis Frechette, was working very hard to avoid offending the government when he refused to pick up Kevin Page's court case that sought to force the government of share all fiscal information on its planned budget cuts.

The Federal Court threw out the original case on a technicality, but expressed support for the principle of government openness, and virtually invited the PBO to try again.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was not too happy when Frechette, in one of his first important decisions, simply dropped the whole matter.

Bad news for the provinces' fiscal capacity

Today, however, the PBO showed the same independence we had come to expect in the Page era when it came out with its Fiscal Sustainability Report for 2013.

Without fanfare or drama, the Report notes, ominously, that Canada's ageing population could create a significant financial strain on key government programs, notably health care.

"The ageing of Canada's population will significantly affect the economy and public finances," the Report warns. "Program expenses will increase as a share of GDP with growth in the segment of the population that receives retirement and elderly benefits and consumes the greatest value per capita of health care services."

And there is no silver lining in the fact that there will be fewer children and young people requiring services geared to them.

The PBO is blunt on that point: "These demographic effects [i.e. population ageing] outweigh the boosts to the public finances from reductions in spending on youth and working age programs such as children’s benefits, education spending, and social benefits."

That fiscal challenge will be especially difficult for the provinces. The PBO Report cautions that in the future the provinces may not have the capacity to continue to pay for health care and other social programs.

The Official Opposition was quick to pounce on the PBO Report.

The impact of massive Conservative cuts to health care and pensions will fall squarely on the shoulders of Canadians and provincial governments, the NDP said in a news release.

In the words of NDP Finance Critic Peggy Nash: "The fiscal imbalance is back. Conservative cuts to the Canada Health Transfer and Old Age Security have actually just downloaded these costs onto the provinces and individual Canadians."

The third party in the federal Parliament, the Liberal Party, has, so far, not commented on the latest PBO Report -- which is odd given the Liberal Leader's oft-stated preoccupation with the economic well-being of the "middle class."

Health care, ageing and pensions are quintessential "middle class" concerns.

Maybe the Liberal Leader is just a bit too busy, right now, demonstrating how great he is at "retail politics" to focus on the grimy details of actual policy.

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