Fixed date loop­holes

Set elec­tion comes with con­cerns, observers say

Cape Breton Post - - PROVINCIAL - BY ME­LANIE MAR­QUIS

The first fixed-date elec­tion in Cana­dian history is just around the cor­ner, but some observers are rais­ing con­cerns about over­spend­ing be­cause of a law they say is flawed.

When the Con­ser­va­tives in­tro­duced a fixed elec­tion date nine years ago, po­lit­i­cal fi­nanc­ing rules were not ad­justed ac­cord­ingly, says Elec­tions Canada boss Marc Mayrand.

“We must not be blind,” said Mayrand. “As much as it is eas­ier for Elec­tions Canada to plan for the elec­tion, it’s just as easy for po­lit­i­cal par­ties and third par­ties” to plan their spend­ing be­fore the elec­tion.

Those ex­penses gen­er­ally go “be­yond the rules out­lined in the elec­toral law,” he added.

The Harper gov­ern­ment had a chance to close some of those loop­holes when it ex­am­ined the elec­toral law but opted to leave a “gap­ing hole,” says Thierry Gi­as­son, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Univer­site Laval.

“The is­sue of pre-elec­tion spend­ing was raised but the gov­ern­ment con­sciously de­cided not to dwell on it,” said Gi­as­son.

Elec­tion cam­paigns are or­ga­nized 12 to 18 months in ad­vance, but only ex­penses in­curred dur­ing the of­fi­cial cam­paign pe­riod are capped, Gi­as­son said.

A fixed-date elec­tion ex­tends that pe­riod con­sid­er­ably — mean­ing weeks and months of unof­fi­cial cam­paign­ing not sub­ject to rules, op­po­si­tion MPs say.

“Pre-elec­tion spend­ing is sub­ject to quite sig­nif­i­cant abuse, with taxpayers’ money that is used for gov­ern­ment an­nounce­ments,” said Lib­eral MP Do­minic LeBlanc.

The NDP’s Peter Ju­lian said us­ing public funds to “con­stantly fi­nance a sort of par­ti­san cam­paign in favour of the Con­ser­va­tive party” is a Harper gov­ern­ment “`trade­mark.”

The Con­ser­va­tives were crit­i­cized in the spring for trum­pet­ing tax mea­sures not yet ap­proved by Par­lia­ment: the Uni­ver­sal Child Care Ben­e­fit.

Cheques are go­ing out to four mil­lion fam­i­lies in the days to come and have been the sub­ject of re­cent Con­ser­va­tive photo-ops fea­tur­ing cab­i­net min­is­ters Pierre Poilievre and Steven Blaney.

Con­ser­va­tive MP Maxime Bernier dis­missed the no­tion that events like those are part of a strat­egy to se­duce vot­ers with elec­toral good­ies.

“Peo­ple are smart,” Bernier said. “I think the public knows the dif­fer­ence be­tween pre-elec­tion ads to ... try to buy votes and ads that are part of a broader gov­ern­ment plan.”

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties aside, the emer­gence of third-party groups like En­gage Canada and HarperPAC on the po­lit­i­cal land­scape has some observers spec­u­lat­ing about an Amer­i­can­iza­tion of the Cana­dian elec­toral sys­tem.

Oth­ers be­lieve Canada is still a long way from that re­al­ity.

“Is the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture chang­ing, and how much of that is ac­tu­ally due to the fixed date?” Mayrand won­dered. “That’s a lit­tle hard to say, but I would say we are still far from the U.S. sys­tem.”

The Oct. 19 vote will mark the first time a fixed elec­tion will have taken place since the Con­ser­va­tives in­tro­duced the mea­sure in 2006. While it was de­signed to cre­ate a level play­ing field, Gi­as­son said it’s clear the party in power still has the up­per hand.

Mayrand said he’ll make rec­om­men­da­tions to Par­lia­ment fol­low­ing the gen­eral elec­tion and will likely tackle the spend­ing is­sue.

CP FILE PHOTO

Chief Elec­toral Of­fi­cer Marc Mayrand ar­rives at a Com­mons house af­fairs com­mit­tee hear­ing in Ot­tawa on Thurs­day, March 6, 2014. When the Con­ser­va­tives in­tro­duced a fixed elec­tion date nine years ago, po­lit­i­cal fi­nanc­ing rules were not ad­justed ac­cord­ingly, says Elec­tions Canada boss Mayrand.

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