It would appear the old mantra that it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask for permission works great for governments trying to get re-elected.
Manitoba’s elections commissioner Bill Bowles has ruled that the governing New Democrats broke the rules in the leadup to last fall’s provincial election by using government staff to give members of the media a tour of a new birthing centre in Winnipeg.
Provincial law prohibits governments from advertising — unless in emergency situations — during the 90-day period before election day, which was held Oct. 4, under the province’s fixed election-date law.
As reported by The Canadian Press, two media outlets were offered a tour of a community birth centre in south Winnipeg on Aug. 30. The centre had been announced more than a year earlier and was nearing completion.
Health Minister Theresa Oswald and Education Minister Nancy Allan appeared in newspaper photographs of the event the following day, which prompted the Opposition Progressive Conservatives to file a complaint with the elections commissioner, accusing the NDP of using government resources for a campaign-style event.
Now what interested us most was the fact that, although Bowles ruled the NDP clearly used government resources — using Oswald’s staff who work for the Department of Health to conduct the media tour — and thus broke the rules, he said the party’s violation was apparently inadvertent.
“People within the government understood that the section (of law) applied only to new government programs, not ones which had been announced before the 90-day period,” Bowles said.
“I don’t agree with that interpretation.”
Bowles also said the Tories and the Liberal Party didn’t have access to government staffers to arrange their election-style media events, nor did they have the ability to use a birth centre to stage that media event.
The problem here is that the sections 56 (1) and 56 (1.1) of the Elections Finances Act that deals with government advertising is somewhat grey when it comes to use of use of programs or projects that have been previously announced.
At the same time, the act lacks any teeth to penalize those who have been found in violation of those sections.
In fact, as the Winnipeg Free Press noted yesterday, it’s not clear whether the NDP will be penalized at all. The Elections Finances Act states that the complainant — in this case, the Tories — can apply to a Court of Queen’s Bench judge who can “award costs for or against any party to the hearing.”
This is hardly the only NDP action that has tested the boundaries of the election laws.
In September of last year NDP leader Greg Selinger sat down in front of media cameras with True North Sports and Entertainment chairman and governor Mark Chipman to announce the Winnipeg Jets True North Foundation, which was also co-sponsored by the province.
Great program, bad optics, and especially bad timing.
As well, Ron Lemieux, the minister responsible for local government, presented a $15,000 cheque to Jenny Plett of Landmark for upgrades to an area park. Although the grant had been approved in the spring of 2010 and the park was rebuilt in August 2010, Lemieux didn’t present the cheque until he attended the Landmark Friendship Festival held in mid-August 2011 — within that same 90-day pre-election period.
Given these situations, it appears more likely that the NDP knowingly capitalized on the lack of clarity within the act, and pushed a few election campaign boundaries last summer to further its own ends.
And now, after they’ve been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they have pleaded ignorance of the laws of the land.
To prevent any further “confusion” on Manitoba’s election financing law, we call on the government to harden the wording of the act, give it some teeth, and stop making excuses.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 3, 2012