December 14, 2019

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Opinion

Time to fix election-law disaster

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>The campaign that’s winding down has provided us with multiple examples of all that is wrong with election laws, says columnist Dan Lett.</p>

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

The campaign that’s winding down has provided us with multiple examples of all that is wrong with election laws, says columnist Dan Lett.

If it’s not too much to ask, perhaps the next government of Manitoba, which will be chosen on Tuesday, could fix our dreadful election laws.

The campaign that’s winding down has provided us with multiple examples of all that is wrong with election laws.

We’ve had a premier break the fixed-date election law and call an election 13 months earlier than required by law with the flimsiest of rationales. During the campaign, we have seen a government in complete chaos when it comes to communication, with key information needed to provide context for campaign pledges denied to journalists and the public.

First, let’s look at how and why we even have an election right now.

Under Section 49 of the Elections Act, which requires elections to be every four years on the first Tuesday in October, Manitoba was to have its next election in October 2020. However, that same law contains a wide array of loopholes, including one that allows the leader of the governing party to call an election at almost any time before the four years is up.

Which brings us to our second piece of fatally flawed election law.

Pallister used the loophole in the fixed-date law to trigger this election by leaning heavily on the "blackout" provisions of the Election Financing Act, which severely restrict government communication and advertising for 90 days prior to an election. Pallister argued that these restrictions would curtail government efforts to celebrate Manitoba’s 150th anniversary next year.

It was a shallow and disingenuous argument that was only possible because of the absurdity of two election-related laws.

If these laws are not changed, we will likely see more disingenuous manipulation of election timing. At the very least, we will have to endure more uncertainty than the laws are supposed to allow about important issues such as the retirement date of the current and likely next premier.

Many observers believe Pallister wants to retire from politics in about two years. The Tory leader tried to refute this theory by saying recently he would "absolutely" serve a second term as premier if re-elected. However, given all the legal loopholes, we really don’t know what "full term" means. It could be two years or a full four years. If he is going to give his party a bit of runway to pick a new leader, it could be somewhere in between. That is not the only concern with these laws.

The so-called communications "blackout" in the Election Financing Act is supposed to stop the governing party from unfairly using government resources to boost its re-election efforts. So, other than responding to natural disasters and public health threats, the government is not allowed to advertise or make announcements in the 90 days prior to election day.

The problem is that this provision is so vague, it has allowed the government to withhold information that is desperately needed during an election.

The blackout always allowed journalists to ask a government department or Crown entity for information needed to accurately report on election issues. However, in an election where health care was the clear No. 1 issue, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) was told it could not release any information. This denied journalists and voters updated information on nursing vacancy rates and ER wait times needed to provide context for pledges and allegations made by the Tories and NDP.

In this scenario, the "blackout" was only effective at denying voters the factual information they needed, at a time they most needed it.

Further chaos ensued when Pallister publicly demanded that the WRHA release ER wait time numbers. A few days later, the health department told the WRHA it could release those numbers. The data turned out to be unflattering for the Tories, but even so, we were left with an image of a government being manipulated by the governing party in the middle of the campaign.

If the next government of Manitoba is concerned about the integrity of elections, it should move quickly to fix or eliminate these laws.

There is simply no reason to have a fixed-date election law in the books that can be bypassed on a whim. If the law is to remain, then perhaps the government should have to first get the support of two-thirds of the legislature to have an election earlier than four-year intervals. The British parliament has a provision like that in its fixed-date election law that is being used right now to deny Prime Minister Boris Johnson a snap election to seek a mandate for a no-deal Brexit.

As for the blackout, there may be an argument for preserving those provisions only if more detail can be included in the letter of the law so that government has clear rules of engagement for communication prior to and during the writ period. There is no excuse for the confusion that exists now.

The man who we all expect to be premier on Sept. 11 has a choice to make as he plans his second and likely last term in government.

Leave these two laws as they are or change them to ensure a modicum of integrity is employed in determining when and how we hold elections in this province. Injecting integrity into election laws would be an excellent legacy for a premier in his farewell tour of politics.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

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