Friday 18 November 2011

Why would Irwin Cotler step down now?

Over the years I have often shared rumours in my Suburban Newspaper column that Mount Royal Liberal Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler might step down. He has been in office for 12 years, having taken a sabbatical from the McGill Faculty of Law to run in a by-election to replace Sheila Finestone. At the start many people figured he’d be a one or two term MP. In fact,  I remember very clearly meeting him at the Cavendish Mall very early in his mandate, at which time he seemed unhappy with the constant back and forth to Ottawa.

Nonetheless, something happened to Cotler as the years went by. He really liked being an MP. A world renowned human rights activist, he saw that with a calling card as a representative from the Canadian government, even more doors opened for him. Of course his proudest moment came in 2003 when then Prime Minister Paul Martin named him Minister of Justice and Attorney General.

When  Stephen Harper and  the  Tories came to power in 2006, the rumours that Cotler would retire intensified again. He had fulfilled a dream of being in the federal cabinet. Why would he stay on as an opposition backbencher? Well, Cotler did not go anywhere. He continued to do his work and enjoyed very friendly relations with the governing Tories. In 2008 and 2011 he was back as a candidate. Even though the Liberals were reduced  to third party status last June, Cotler continues to enjoy a high profile. This past week, though, media coverage focused yet again on his future.

 On Friday  I attended a news conference at Cotler’s riding office in Côte des Neiges at which time he called into question the polling being conducted in Mount Royal by a firm tied to the ruling Conservative Party all the more confusing.

Cotler addresses riding news conference.

This firm, Campaign Research, has been identified as having representatives call constituents of Cotler to see whether they would  support the Tories in  a “pending by-election.” 
Cotler declared that he has no intention of stepping down while confirming  with me that this will be his last term in office.  That being said, the next election is not for another four years. He called the polling a potential breach of his parliamentary privilege  which “inhibits and impedes the exercise of my parliamentary functions, or indeed of any member of Parliament so targeted. For example, beyond the phone calls, emails and requests for meetings as a result of these calls, which themselves are an encumbrance, it causes confusion among the electorate. It impedes me in the discharge of my functions.”  
Cotler says he is most bothered  by the calls coming into his office from constituents asking when  a   by-election will occur. “Such questions cause damage to my reputation and credibility and would do so to any member of the House,” he said. “The insinuation, therefore, that I am abandoning my MP role here is at variance with the truth. I am saying this at the risk of sounding self-serving just to put the facts on the record, but I may have more motions on the order paper than any other member of this place. I seek to take my responsibilities as a parliamentarian very seriously, be it in committee, where now before the justice and legal affairs committee I have some 50 amendments with respect to the proposed omnibus crime bill, or in parliamentary debate, where like many other members in the House I remain an active member in take note debates, or just to use today as a case study, like other members in the House, I posed a question in question period and earlier made a statement.
“How can one correct the confusion and prejudicial damage that has been done in the minds of those who may think I am no longer their representative in Parliament or no longer discharging my duties? In short, telling my constituents that I am resigning and that there is a by-election imminently occurring is not only patently false but the clear and important point here is that it violates my privileges as a member and should be regarded by all members in this House as an unacceptable practice for this institution and its members. The particularly relevant part is that while this occurred in my riding of Mount Royal, nothing is to stop this from occurring in another riding and this practice ends up being an affront to all who serve in this place.
Cotler has asked the Speaker of the House of Commons to rule that this is a prima facie breach of privilege. He would like to see an investigation done to get to the bottom of this matter and recommend appropriate sanctions in the circumstances where appropriate.
Cotler confers with chief of staff Howard Liebman.

The by-election rumours were not, in fact, the intended focus of the news conference. Cotler regularly meets with the local community media to update them on his agenda. In this case he knocked the  Conservative government for shutting down Justice Committee work on omnibus crime bill (C-10).  He has moved 50 amendments , including those of the Quebec government. Meanwhile, he has been  retained as international legal counsel to detained and convicted Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil,  88 days into a hunger strike at the time of the news conference. A day earlier he spearheaded an all-party MP press conference in Ottawa   for Nabil and introduced a unanimously adopted resolution at the Subcommittee for International human rights.  He also pressed the government to act urgently on Iran in the wake of the UN’s IAEA report: listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity; sanctioning the Iranian Central bank and regime officials.
Mount Royal has been a Liberal stronghold for decades and last May the Tories, with former Montreal city councillor Saulie Zajdel as their candidate, came close to an upset. Cotler earned 41.4 percent of the vote, with Zajdel grabbing 35.6 percent. Most observers agreed that if not for Cotler’s personal star power, the Grits would have lost. Zajdel recently landed a job with the federal government reporting on regional concerns for Heritage Minister James Moore. It is widely considered that in the event Cotler does step down before his term ends in four years, Zajdel would be a favourite to take the riding.
 The media turnout for the news conference extended beyond the usual community press, as local radio and television reporters came. Some of them even apologetically asked more questions about the rumours than any of the human rights matters.
If the Tories were behind this in any way, it was very poor strategy. Why do so a mere six months into the new mandate. Even if Cotler were contemplating retirement – and it was abundantly clear from our talk today he is not –at least wait a full year!  The end result of this entire exercise just makes him dig his heals in more.
With chief  of staff Howard Liebman running the show, Cotler’s office in Ottawa and here in Montreal have never been  busier. Hardly the sign of someone looking to walk off into the sunset.
Here is Cotler at his last campaign launch:

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