Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Elections Canada needs to open up

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OTTAWA -- An MP stands accused of trying to get taxpayers to help foot the bill for haircuts and tooth whitener.

Two others are engaged in a battle with Elections Canada over whether they have to claim as election ads certain ads they erected before the election.

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When Elections Canada writes to the Speaker of the House of Commons, saying the latter two aren't eligible to sit and vote anymore because they haven't filed proper campaign-expense returns, nobody is told until a journalist hears the MPs are going to court to fight back.

Seems amid all the talk in Ottawa these days of the need for more transparency from Parliament, Elections Canada should be added to the list.

The public is essentially kept in the dark about what Elections Canada investigates, the complaints it gets and what it finds.

Questions about expenses claimed by Ontario MP Eve Adams, such as a post-election victory dinner, are uncovered only if someone specifically looks at the receipts in her file, which is not an option for her constituents unless they travel to Ottawa.

When Manitoba MPs Shelly Glover and James Bezan went to court to fight Elections Canada's requirement they claim as an election expense ads they purchased before the campaign, one might think that would free chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand to at least speak about the problem, but nope.

The only information comes from letters between Mayrand and Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton, which become part of the election files kept on every candidate. Those letters are only available by making an appointment with Elections Canada to see the documents at the agency's head office in downtown Ottawa.

Mayrand and Elections Canada can't or won't provide explanations of the situation and will answer only vague questions about what the law requires.

Democracy Watch has fought Elections Canada for years trying to get more information on thousands of complaints the agency has investigated since 1997. Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, said the only way Canadians can have faith our electoral system is fair is if the elections agency is open about its activities.

"They should be explaining to Canadians how they are enforcing the law," Sommers said.

That doesn't mean Elections Canada should tell the public the specifics of every complaint. That could easily spur malcontents to make complaints simply to smear an MP or candidate. But Sommers said Elections Canada can and should release what the complaint was, without naming names, show what they did to investigate it and what the findings were.

Elections Canada deserves some credit for being more open than, say, the House of Commons. While MPs and senators are still trying to figure out exactly how much detail they should disclose about what they're spending our money on, Elections Canada is required by law to provide information on what candidates and political parties spend, how much money they raise and from whom.

A lot of the macro information is available online and Section 541 of the Elections Act requires the details to be made public "on request during business hours."

But the section is incredibly stifling to anyone who doesn't live within reasonable range of the agency's Ottawa headquarters.

And the documents are not always easy to navigate. Elections Canada can't do much about this on its own. Parliament needs to take a hard look at the openness of the agency and make it as easy as possible for Elections Canada to publish more information online about election returns and speak publicly about what it is doing to keep things in line.

It also needs to stop cutting funding for the agency. Mayrand is operating with an eight per cent funding cut this year, reducing the ability of the agency to improve its work for Canadians.

The government promised legislation to address abuses such as robocalls and was close to tabling it this spring before pulling it back at the last moment. It's now expected in the fall.

Perhaps the summer will give the government time to also incorporate changes giving Elections Canada more freedom to let Canadians know what is going on behind its closed doors.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2013 A5

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