Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Conservative MPs must obey law, or change it

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The Conservative Party of Canada has, yet again, run afoul of election laws. This time, it's Manitoba Tory MPs James Bezan and Shelly Glover, who are accused of failing to accurately report election expenses and then refusing to amend their returns.

Last month, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons, demanding that Bezan and Glover be suspended for refusing to file complete 2011 election-expense returns. Both MPs dispute the Elections Canada ruling that would require them to claim additional expenses. In both cases, that would likely put them over the spending limit.

Mayrand took the unusual step of asking the two MPs be suspended because they refused to amend their returns. Both MPs insisted their returns were fully compliant and it was the chief electoral officer who had erred in his ruling. Now, they've gone to court to prove their case.

The MPs portray the alleged crimes against the electoral laws as petty, meaningless and ultimately inconsequential. It would be a mistake to accept that assertion. While the guilt of Bezan and Glover has not been proven, the issues here strike deep at the heart of democracy.

Although there are different specific issues with each MP's return, there is one issue that links both: the failure to accurately account for money spent during the 2011 campaign.

Elections Canada requires detailed itemization of all expenses so it can ensure compliance with the law. Both MPs entered tens of thousands of dollars in expenses under broad and extremely general categories with no specifics about who received the money.

According to official election returns, Glover had line entries for $34,477 in "other advertising," $18,257 for "surveys" and $9,545 for "miscellaneous expenses." Bezan, in similar fashion, claimed $17,253 for "other" and $26,221 for "amounts not included in election expenses."

The important thing to note about Elections Canada is that it genuinely does everything it can to remedy erroneous or incomplete expense returns before resorting to extraordinary measures. It is well-known politicians who have broken election finance laws have got away with little more than an agreement to amend their returns and a promise never to do it again. That is to say, you really have to flout the authority of the chief electoral officer to end up where Bezan and Glover are now.

Why is this important?

Both MPs have a tremendous advantage over competitors come election time. As sitting MPs, they are able to raise more money, spend more money, and can access taxpayer cash between elections to promote their brand and activities.

In Bezan's case, the issue at stake appears to be his refusal to claim permanent advertising -- ads he would pay for out of his MP's budget between elections -- as an election expense. This is a pretty standard restriction on incumbents at both the federal and provincial level. Bezan claimed in his statement he disagreed with Elections Canada over this provision in each of the past three elections. That doesn't explain why Bezan feels the rules are unfair.

Once a writ is dropped, an elected politician becomes a candidate. Any resource or advantage they have as a sitting legislator is taken away from them. We know Bezan feels this is silly, but we don't know why.

The thing is, even if it is unfair, it's unfair for all candidates. In other words, it's a perfectly level playing field. Again, no indication why Bezan has an issue with that.

The Bezan-Glover story raises an important question: What exactly does a politician have to do in this country to get kicked out of his or her seat?

The Conservative party last year pleaded guilty to violating election finance laws in the 2006 federal election in what has become known as the "in-and-out scandal." By moving expenses in and out of local riding accounts, the party was able to exceed its $18-million central campaign limit. A fine was levied against the party. The kicker was the investigation into this debacle cost Elections Canada, and thus taxpayers, more than $2 million.

Elections Canada also recently fined a number of politicians from various parties for abusing robocalls in the last election. The calls were blatant attempts to discourage voters.

Fining someone who tried deliberately to undermine the electoral process seems a little like giving a speeding ticket to someone after they have plowed their car into bus full of preschoolers. The punishment is out of step with the crime.

There comes a time in the life of any politician when you have to demonstrate a commitment to either obeying the law, or changing it. For the Conservative party, and members of other parties who have also lost their moral compasses, that time is now.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2013 A4

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