FYI

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Election rules are just quackery

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THINGS are not always what they seem. There is an old saying, "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck".

Not so, insofar as Manitoba elections are concerned. Last week I found a one-page colourful piece of literature in my mailbox. It had a picture of the Manitoba premier, prominently displayed, and a less flattering and less prominent picture of his opponent, the leader of the Opposition.

The text of the pamphlet urged me to support and vote for the NDP government and to protect my future by not supporting the Conservative party, which would do drastic harm to Manitoba. The pamphlet looked like an election pamphlet, was delivered like an election pamphlet and read like an election pamphlet.

But if you think the duck analogy applies, you are misinformed and lack political sophistication. You see, the missive is not an election pamphlet because the Manitoba legislature declares that it is not.

The cost of a pamphlet urging you to vote for a political party or candidate which is printed, published and sent to you outside of a campaign period is not included in the election expense limits which parties are bound not to exceed and which are specified by law.

The election campaign period, also defined by statute, begins on the date the election is called and continues until polling day. It is said of the parliamentary system that the legislature can legislate a man to be a woman. The Elections Finances Act is proof of this assertion.

When I was in politics, I always believed the election campaign starts when the votes are counted and the results announced. Every move we made was made with the intention that our actions would commend themselves to the public with the hope that we would be re-elected. For all practical purposes, we never stopped campaigning.

What's more, we tried to behave reasonably. We raised as much money as we could and there were no rules as to how much we could spend and how much citizens could donate to support a political party.

As a matter of fact, there was no mention of the term "political party" in any legislation. The party system was a natural outgrowth of the parliamentary system, and this natural development was conducive to a healthy democratic system. One did not have to hire a lawyer or consult experts to find out how to participate in the process. When the government made the move to finance election campaigns and limit and regulate contributions to political activities, everything changed. If money is to be given to parties and candidates and financial contributions are to be regulated, this cannot be a accomplished without detailed legislation.

The result is The Elections Finances Act, a statute 68 pages long containing 100 sections, which attempts to define the indefinable and which puts the parties and candidates to work trying to figure out how to circumvent the law.

The act purports to limit the amount a party can spend during an election campaign.

But the leaflet I got last week was not published and sent during the artificially defined election campaign. Accordingly, the cost of the pamphlet would not be included in the election expense limits. So is this one home free?

Not so fast. The geniuses writing the legislation probably knew the limits could readily be avoided by spending heavily a week before the designated campaign period actually began, so they passed another section limiting the amount that could be spent in the year preceding an election. But this is an additional limit and does not affect the amount that can be spent during the "campaign period." If this begins to be confusing, hold on. You ain't read nothing yet.

The legislation prohibits anonymous contributions of any appreciable amount. But it does not and cannot prevent a wealthy and generous contributor from spreading around any amount of money to trusted friends and letting them make the contribution.

If you pass the hat around at a public meeting and it happens to contain several 1,000-dollar bills, the organizers of the meeting must, by law, try to determine how they got there. If they cannot identify the donor or donors, they are required by law to turn the money over to the minister of finance.

I suppose the same thing is supposed to happen if the party finds a healthy wad of cash in its mail box. I leave it to the readers to form their own opinion as to what would really happen in these circumstances.

If you pointed out some of the futility of these statutory provisions to their advocates, they would quickly try to remedy the situation. Regulation begets regulation and the phenomenon of the comic strip Spy vs. Spy would prevail. The legislators and those being legislated would be in a perpetual state of trying to outwit each other with increasingly diminishing success.

The ultimate futility of the existing legislation is that none of the restrictions applies to entities other than political parties and registered candidates. A group for good government claiming to be unassociated with any political party could donate, spend and advertise as much as it pleased, unaffected by the legislation. An attempt to close this "loophole" has already been made by other governments which have passed legislation banning third-party participation in election campaigns if money is spent. It is ironic that in the so-called attempt to preserve the integrity of the democratic process, we are forced into making laws prohibiting public participation.

We have an alternative. We can go back to the days when there were no special laws governing election financing and election spending and rely on the integrity of the candidates, the parties and the intelligence of the voters.

Or we can try to have these matters regulated by legislation, which will inevitably result in more and more rules designed to perfect the imperfectable and which will ultimately prove futile. The Harper government has taken one small but proper step by indicating the intention to discontinue political party financing. It still has a long way to go.

 

Sidney Green is a former NDP cabinet minister.

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2011 J11

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