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What’s an election watchdog to do?

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It seems to becoming more and more common for newly elected politicians to be accused of breaking basic rules of elections and campaigning. In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford is facing allegations he exceeded his $1.3-million campaign last fall by $70,000. Fords critics are demanding a more detailed audit of his expense returns to determine, among other things, whether Ford used family holding companies to funnel money into his campaign, which would likely contravene a ban on corporate donations. Not surprisingly, the imperial grand poo-bah of Ford Nation has denied any wrongdoing.

At the federal level, our good friend Ruth Ellen Brosseau is facing allegations of her own about improperly filed nomination papers. The Ottawa-based NDP Quebec MP made headlines for taking a brief vacation in Las Vegas while the election campaign was ongoing. Now, two residents of her new riding, whose signatures appeared on her nomination papers, claim now that they did not in fact agree to endorse her candidacy. This would mean that Brosseau did not gather the necessary 100 signatures from her riding to qualify as a federal candidate. The NDP campaign office maintains that the nomination papers were filed in accordance with all Elections Canada requirements. EC is "looking into the matter."

For argument’s sake, let’s say that Ford overspent and Brosseau’s nomination papers were improper. Now that they’ve been elected, what’s going to happen? Does anybody think there’s going to be a do-over in either election? The fact of the matter is that do-overs are almost never done, at least when it comes to elections.

Consider that Elections Canada is still prosecuting the federal Conservatives for exceeding election spending limits for the 2006 general election by more than a million dollars, while providing more than $800,000 in unwarranted rebates to Tory candidates. The Tories have been fighting the elections watchdog on the issue but lost a key federal court appeal earlier this year, and two Conservative senators have been charged with breaching election laws.

The Tories have now changed their accounting procedures to comply with federal law, but there doesn’t appear to be any appetite for revisiting the 2006 election result. Exceeding a spending limit is a pretty serious transgression. In fact, most people might agree that overspending could theoretically alter the outcome of an election. Why, then, do we never get around to reviewing the outcome of elections? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get that question answered by Elections Canada. Since the legal battle began with the Conservatives, EC has been locked down tighter than the Bin Laden execution photos.

This is a perfect example of how laws and reality sometimes don’t mix well. In fact, the consequences for breaking election law in particular seem to be mostly theoretical. I will be surprised if Vegas girl, as Brosseau has been nicknamed, will lose her seat in Quebec. Or that a mayoral by-election will be called in Toronto. Or that anyone will even suggest, in a fit of political hyperbole, that the 2006 election results are illegal. All of this explains the boldness of the Conservatives in 2006. When you know that any penalties are largely administrative, and no one is going to jail, and nobody is going to ask you to call a new election, then the rewards for breaking election laws become much greater than the risks.

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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