Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In and Out

After months of this being talked about, the Mounties have now executed a search warrant against the headquarters of the ruling Conservative Party here in Canada, on behalf of the arms-length Elections Canada agency. In what some have called the "in and out scandal," the story is this: After the Cons' candidate for PM, Stephen Harper (now PM), reached his spending limit of $18.3 million, surplus donations were transferred to 66 of the 308 local district campaigns. Nothing wrong with that -- it's been done before. That's the "in" part.

If the money had been used for truly local advertisements about local issues, that would not have been a problem either.

However, the accusation is, the local candidates sent the money back to national HQ (the "out") which then rebroadcast the identical ads on local television and radio stations -- except that the small print identifying who "approved" the ad was not the federal authorized agent (i.e. campaign manager) but the local ones. Since there was no differentiation in the ads, Elections Canada says, the spending limits were broken.

It does seem too clever by half, prima facie. Whether any laws were actually broken I am not really in a position to say. However, the penalties can be severe -- up to five years imprisonment plus a seven year ban from voting, each instance. Not to mention substantial fines.

This sort of reminds me of a strategy that the Ontario PCs used in the successful 1995 campaign of Mike "The Knife" Harris. Strapped for funds even with all the publicity over the "common sense revolution," the PCs custom made video tapes for distribution in each district. The only differentiation was a brief appeal by the PC candidate at the end; along with video of the Liberal or NDP incumbent (or exiled candidate attempting to make a comeback after sitting out for one term) voting for a tax increase.

As best as I can recall, the videos were marked "local" but they were clearly made by head office in Toronto and paid for by them. Very dangerously close to breaking the law, but they weren't called on it -- for what it's worth, both Bob Rae (then NDP) and Lyn McLeod (Liberal) were both unpopular nominees so Harris won it in a walk coming from worst to first.

Even if the Cons get away with it on a "fine print" technicality, that rule should be changed. There should be a clear announcement at the beginning or the end of the advertisement saying: "I'm Joe / Jane Blow, and I approve this message." There should also be clear rules that a national advertisement cannot be used solely on local stations and vice versa.

Better yet -- go the route they have in the UK, with no paid time ads whatsoever; and have only free time election broadcasts of three to five minutes each. Their production values are way superior to anything seen in either the US or Canada, and since you know when a party has their turn it becomes must see TV. No one can run away from responsibility in that case -- you KNOW who stands behind the ad, period.

Whatever the case may be, the Liberals should think long and hard about whether now's the time to pounce. If the Cons got elected by overspending, then that undermines their claim to be a clean government and makes them no better or worse then the people they replaced. Frankly, I'd make the move now before the Cons can make any more damage to our international reputation, our environment, our already fractured system of child care.

UPDATE (6:02 pm EDT, 2202 GMT): Harper is asking out loud why the Mounties had to be involved. Um, they usually get involved if they suspect criminal behaviour. This is way beyond the civil matter where the Conservatives are suing Elections Canada to get their matching funds in local races. Also, isn't it interesting that the press happened to be at Con HQ just when "The Service" showed up? Like with Glen Clark (NDP) in BC a few years ago, right at his home?

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