Last week, Olivia Chow confirmed the worst-kept secret in Toronto when she launched a campaign to become the next mayor of Canada's largest city.
Illuminated by blasts of camera flashes, Chow stood at a lectern festooned with a vivid blue-and-gold campaign slogan: New Mayor. Better City.
It was a pretty impressive event. The kind of event that injects a bit of excitement into municipal politics.
It was also exactly the kind of event that is prohibited in Winnipeg until May 1 because of campaign restrictions.
Former councillor Gord Steeves found out the hard way about regional differences in electoral laws. Like Chow, he held a campaign launch last fall with posters, slogans and a speech about cleaning up city hall. It was perfect, save for the fact it was illegal.
According to the Winnipeg Charter and associated bylaws, no candidate may raise or spend money, or receive any donations in kind, until they are officially registered as a mayoral candidate, which is permitted on the first of May. Candidates for city council cannot raise or spend money until June 30.
That is 174 days for a mayoral campaign and only 114 days for council.
Why is there such a variation? In fact, municipal election laws vary wildly across the country.
In Toronto, where Chow is already wowing voters, candidates were able to register Jan. 2, allowing them to raise and spend money and circulate pamphlets and buttons. They cannot put up signs at campaign offices until July and aren't allowed to put up lawn signs until the first week of October.
That is a considerably longer campaign period than Winnipeg, but still much shorter than Alberta. Thanks to new laws enacted in 2012, Alberta candidates can register and start campaigning in the January following an election -- 3.75 years before the next vote.
Robert Ermel, director of the Manitoba Institute for Policy Research at the University of Manitoba, said while there is no perfect system, shorter campaigns and greater restrictions tilt the electoral playing field in favour of incumbents, who have access to publicity and organizational resources through ward or riding allowances.
Ermel said shorter campaigns essentially force all candidates to circumvent the rules. It is impossible to organize and execute a mayoral campaign in just over four months. However, because no one can raise or spend money until May 1, organizing and fundraising are driven underground. In other words, all the machinery of a campaign is still going on, albeit behind the scenes and outside the reach of electoral overseers.
"The rules ignore what everybody knows is really going on," Ermel said. "We have a system now where people can say they're running for mayor but not allowed to do anything to campaign. And that's just stupid."
Case in point: The only other unofficial-official mayoral candidate is current Coun. John Orlikow, who announced in January he was in the race to beat or replace Mayor Sam Katz, who has yet to make his intentions known.
Orlikow was careful to avoid any sort of splashy campaign launch. Instead, he sent out a news release and responded to media inquiries. Although the intent of what Orlikow did was exactly the same as Steeves, he broke no rules.
On an ongoing basis, it's fairly clear Steeves and Orlikow are both skirting the spirit of election laws. For example, both have issued news releases on a variety of subjects that certainly look and sound like campaign material.
Both, for example, put out news releases on the city's snow-clearing travails in early January. Steeves' news release is very simple, but it includes his slogan, Mayor for a New Day and contact information for his "communications director."
Orlikow's release does not mention his mayoral campaign, but has a logo and uses language that sounds decidedly electoral.
Once you have announced your mayoral intentions, almost everything you say and do is part of your campaign.
And it is a mystery how Steeves could have a communications director on a campaign that is not allowed to employ staff or accept donations in kind for another six weeks or so.
Ermel noted the best system is one that allows people to campaign earlier but also forces them to record and report all fundraising and expenditures. That doesn't mean there will be a flood of early candidates; most people not currently holding elected office often do not have the luxury of campaigning while holding down a day job. Others who are elected to some other office may not want to resign those positions to make a mayoral bid. However, allowing unofficial campaigns to violate the spirit of electoral law is clearly not acceptable.
In fact, as a noted expert in the field has remarked, it's just stupid.