Minister Penashue was elected to the House of Commons in May 2011, making him the first Labrador Innu to be elected to Parliament, and the first Innu to hold a cabinet post. He should be proud on both counts, as are many of his supporters in Labrador.
He went to Ottawa following some noteworthy service to the Labrador Innu community, including a tenure as grand chief of the Innu Nation, and deep involvement with some very delicate issues such as land claims and self-government.
To be sure, he is no stranger to leadership roles, and plenty was expected of him.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Minister Penashue the federal politician, who has often been described as “Ottawa’s ambassador to Newfoundland” because of his unbending loyalty to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the face of deep federal job and service reductions in this province.
The most recent controversy, however, has wiped away any remaining legitimacy Minister Penashue may have had in politics. Some resourceful probing by CBC News has revealed that Minister Penashue massively overspent his limit in a campaign that saw him narrowly defeat Liberal Todd Russell, who was the incumbent MP.
It’s also been revealed that he violated campaign rules when an airline wrote off much of his travel costs, which is contrary to a rule that states candidates must pay fair market value for their travel. Minister Penashue racked up large bills flying all over Labrador, determined to live up to a pledge to visit every community.
Minister Penashue and the Conservatives have attempted to place the blame on his former official financial agent, and on a lack of experience among those involved in the campaign, including the candidate.
The revelations have created a political firestorm, with the Liberals and the NDP calling for stiff sanctions against Minister Penashue, including the calling of a byelection.
Considering that Minister Penashue had such an unfair advantage in the 2011 vote, and that the margin of victory was so narrow, it’s hard to argue that anything less would be acceptable.
It’s time for Minister Penashue and his fellow Conservatives to stop making excuses. There might be some leniency had the overspending been insignificant. But spending 21 per cent more than is permitted cannot be ignored. The overspending most certainly bought Minister Penashue additional votes, and in such a close race, it’s reasonable to assume it may have made a difference in the outcome.
Minister Penashue should do the honourable thing and go back to the voters, and follow the rules.