Friday, February 25, 2011

You Put Your Riding Cash In, National Spending Cash Out...

Source: CBC News: 2 Tory Senators Charged Over Campaign Spending
Source: CTV News: Conservative Officials Face Elections Act Charges

Since the 2006 Election which brought the Harper Conservatives to power, there has been a few questions revolving around the nature of campaign spending on the part of the Conservatives. Elections Canada and the Conservative Party of Canada have been locked in quite a few different shows of power since Harper and his party came to office.

From attempting to get Elections Canada to accept a whopping $600,000 GST rebate (which, by the way, would have opened the door for the Conservatives to raise their own spending limits as mandated by Elections Canada), to the long going battle of the in-and-out problem.

Now, campaign treachery is not my strong suit, so I'm not 100% versed on the details of an in-and-out scheme. But, this is my understanding of how it works.

Elections in Canada have spending limits as determined by Elections Canada for the purpose of ensuring a level playing field between Canada's major political parties. After all, if one party could simply spend a million dollars on constant TV ads trashing the other guys for a full twenty-four hours, it would be highly unlikely that the party being trashed could respond.

And in a democracy, competition may play a part in helping people decide who to mark their ballots for, but ensuring that all Canadians hear the messages of each party is more important than who can buy the most airtime.

Now, spending limits exist two-fold.

There is a national spending limit, which is exactly what it sounds like. The national organization of the party (in this case The Conservative Party of Canada) has a limited amount of how much money they can spend in an election. National expenses tend to be things like commercials that air in all the provinces and territories, salaries for national campaign staff, and so forth.

Then there is a riding spending limit, which effectively limits how much money can be spent within a giving riding (so, say things like candidate expenses for traveling throughout the riding could be covered for this, as is pamphlets and other expenses.)

Now, someone, at some point realized something: Some ridings are taking in far more money than can be spent legally during an election. Furthermore, some so-called 'safe ridings' (ridings which have voted consistently for one party/candidate for X number of years) were generating income but practically didn't need to spend anything because a victory was already guaranteed.

And then the solution came.

Why not funnel the money from ridings that aren't going to spend it into national campaign expenses?

And that's exactly what seems to have happened in the 2006 election.

A campaign office was set up for the Conservatives that represented a riding constituency office; in that numerous candidates had their offices in this building and it was represented as a riding expense.

However, as people began to dig deeper and deeper into this office, it became clear that many of the candidates who had offices here during the election never even set foot in the building. And that instead, what was going on, was that money raised in those ridings was being sent through this office into national campaign spending BUT being reported to Elections Canada as regional campaign spending.

Let me repeat that.

The Conservative Party filed reports with Elections Canada that stated that the money raised by this office was used to fund the campaign in those ridings; while in reality, the money was being spent on national campaign expenses.

When the news of this first broke, the Conservative Party more or less acted like a child who was caught with their hand in the cookie jar; they simply stated that the so called in-and-out method was simple politics that had been used by every party in Ottawa at one point or another and more or less unabashedly treated it like a non-issue.

However, this non-issue has not gone away, and the Conservatives have been battling Elections Canada over it since the 2006 election.

There was a Conservative victory in the courts, which is now being appealed, but no one can say for sure whether or not it will hold up. After all, the courts initially suggested that Elections Canada needed to take the Conservatives GST rebate and that was later overturned in an appeal, so who knows if that same could happen to the Conservatives here.

Despite this being against the Elections Act, it is not a criminal charge.

There was talk of banning the so called in-and-out method, surprisingly brought about by the Martin Government, which was lost and never brought back when the House of Commons brought down the Liberals.

So, at worst, the four Tories who have been charged in being in breach of the Elections Act will get no more than a slap on the wrist; while the candidates who engaged in the practice (and undoubtedly Harper's inner circle) will get away scot-free.

Now, this is a simple question but if history has proven anything it's that the Conservatives always do poorly on simple questions and questions of moral and ethic responsibility as far as governance and respect for democracy is concerned; but was this wrong?

As I mentioned above, the true test of a democracy is the ability to start an informed debate. And this is done through a variety of ways, but a major factor is the way in which political parties are able to frame the debate and the methods they use to get their messages from the corridors of Ottawa to the people of Canada.

We are not an oligarchy (though some people I know may challenge that statement) where those with the most money have the most right to 'inform' Canadians about the issues; we are a democracy where each idea should be weighed on the idea of merit and all ideas should have a chance to be heard.

That is why the spending limit exists; it is supposed to frame the parties that exist in Canada into adopting a method of spreading their message fairly and equally to all Canadians. By bypassing these spending limits, the Conservatives are continuing to show their disdain for democracy and due process and their relentless ambition to do anything possible to take the title of 'Canada's Natural Governing Party' for themselves.

In order for democracy to truly work, all parties must be equal and be treated as such (provided that they have the support to back them, I mean, after all we do have the Rhinoceros Party) and that means placing parties on an equal platform where the ability to have their message heard is afforded to them.

By cutting corners and going through loopholes, the Conservatives only cheapen our democratic process.

Democracy is about the exchange of ideas, not who can spend the most money, and it's high time we Canadians made sure the Harper Conservatives get that message.

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