Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Civic elections aren't fair

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When former city councillor Gord Steeves held an event Monday to announce he would run for the mayoralty, it was immediately criticized by incumbent Coun. Paula Havixbeck, who has said she may also be interested in the position.

Coun. Havixbeck was upset rules were being broken, that he was apparently giving himself an unfair advantage by starting his campaign early.

Mr. Steeves had broken the city's election rules, which prohibit spending a single dime before the registration period, which is May 1 for mayoral candidates and June 30 for prospective councillors. He received a written warning from the city clerk's office but the matter has since been dropped.

As Andrew Moreau, an expert on governance, said on these pages recently, if the election rules give anyone an unfair advantage, it's the incumbent mayor and councillors, who have generous representation allowances and other forms of discretionary spending to help polish their profile during their four-year terms.

The current legislation, in fact, is horribly slanted against challengers. It's time to reform this arcane system, which prevents challengers such as Mr. Steeves from competing on a fair playing field.

Incumbents are considered to have an advantage at every level of government but at least the provincial and federal governments have tried to mitigate the advantage.

Ruling parties, for example, cannot make announcements during and immediately prior to an election. Incumbents must also claim existing advertising, such as bus-bench ads and billboards, against their election spending.

There are no such rules for mayors or councillors, who are allowed to continue doling out cash to groups in their wards until the end of the election. They are not allowed to distribute new advertising or newsletters during an election period but they can still spend money to "communicate" with their constituents on specific issues. Their billboards and bus-bench advertisements do not count as election spending, another huge advantage.

The province needs to tighten up the rules for incumbents, including restricting their ability to make major announcements or distribute grants in the last five or six weeks of the campaign, when voters are most attentive.

Challengers should also be allowed to start their campaigns earlier to give them more opportunity to express ideas and meet voters. They also need the extra time to raise funds, which is difficult without a party machine or organization.

Incumbents don't have trouble raising funds and most of them raise their maximum limit quickly but it's not that easy for challengers. To be fair, incumbents would have to be given the same privileges, not that they really need them given their privileged positions.

A fairer playing field might attract more serious candidates and could also generate more vigorous debate and discussion of ideas, which can only be good for democracy. It might even increase turnout if voters believed they had real choices.

Municipal elections generally don't heat up until the end of September, four weeks before election day, but no one should be threatened by a challenger who would like to get out of the gate a little quicker.

City hall's incumbents like the existing rules. It's no wonder why.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 A16

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