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Opposition MLAs press for details on vote returns

Elections officer urged to be more open

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Opposition MLAs say the province's chief elections officer is hiding behind a flawed interpretation of the law to dodge questions about the NDP's 1999 campaign returns.Tory MLA Kelvin Goertzen and Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux say a law barring Elections Manitoba from discussing investigations applies only when the investigation is underway, not once it's done. The results of investigations and the rational for laying charges ought to be public.

"I think it's unreasonable," said Lamoureux, a frequent critic of Elections Manitoba. "I do believe the public good would be better served by a more liberal interpretation of the law."

But Elections Manitoba spokesperson Mary Skanderbeg said the agency's interpretation of the law is based on legal advice.

"Investigations are to be conducted in private and therefore cannot be commented on," she said. "This has been our consistent practice over the years and has been applied uniformly across all political parties."

For the last two weeks, the Doer government has been on the hotseat over a scheme to max out its rebates in the 1999 election by counting free union workers as expenses instead of donations in kind. After a three-year investigation by Elections Manitoba, the party was forced to repay $76,000 in public subsidies.

But no charges were ever laid and the details of the investigation remain under wraps. At a legislative committee meeting late last month Chief Electoral Officer Richard Balasko said repeatedly that the rules bar him from commenting on the investigation.

Most federal and provincial election bosses speak to the media, lecture at conferences and frequently face questions from elected politicians at committee meetings.

Balasko does not do media interviews, rarely makes public presentations and appears at committee once a year at best.

University of Manitoba politics Prof. Paul Thomas said Balasko could stand to be somewhat more open and visible.

But Thomas said Balasko may feel he can exert more influence on politicians from all parties with behind-the-scenes diplomacy, staying beyond the reach of the partisan political theatre that usually defines the Manitoba legislature.

"He could be more outspoken without crossing that line, though," said Thomas, who praised Balasko for his genuine passion for electoral law.

The Doer government recently abolished the nugget of legislation mandating that election violations be investigated in private. That gives Elections Manitoba new latitude to reveal details of an investigation if it is in the public's interest. But that new rule doesn't apply retroactively to previous campaigns, and the Tories and Liberals say Balasko is interpreting the old law too broadly anyway.

"By not having transparency on investigations, it leaves other parties to question whether they were done impartially," said Tory MLA Kelvin Goertzen.

Top election officials in Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta speak publicly often.

In Alberta, though, election rules appear to lag far behind Manitoba's. Until recently, returning officers were appointed by the government, which caused a sensation when it was revealed many had close ties to the ruling Tories.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2009 B2

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