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Wed, Apr 23rd - 7:17AM

Canadian Prime Minister Flip Flops on Election Rigging Scandal

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has flip-flopped on the recent election rigging scandal. Stephen Harper denies Conservatives committed fraud by using Elections Canada to pay for their television advertising.

In 2000, as head of the National Citizens Coalition, Stephen Harper led an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada against election spending limits for third parties.

He opposed such limits, and lost. The Supreme Court in 2004 held that "the overarching objective of the spending limits is electoral fairness." Spending limits exist, in its words, to "level the playing field" so that parties with significant financial resources cannot "dominate the political discourse."

Now jump ahead to 2006. Harper is leader of the opposition and has an election to fight. Nationally, spending limits for each party have been set at $18.5 million. Locally, limits vary but are about $70,000 for each riding.

National TV ads are expensive. The Conservative party needs more money to pay for them. A decision is made. If it were to give local ridings money, which it can do, those ridings could give that money right back to it – "in-and-out," as Elections Canada would later describe the scheme – to buy TV time locally in order to run ads that would be identical to its national ads except that, at the end of each ad at the bottom of the TV screen, in small print, would appear the words, "Paid for by (name of local candidate)."

In this way, according to Conservative party thinking, it could have ads with no less of a national message, and impact, but paid for by local campaigns. So instead of being able to spend only $18.5 million nationally, it could spend much more.

Wait – it gets better. After each election, by law, every local campaign is entitled to receive a rebate from Elections Canada based on what that campaign spent. In this instance, according to Conservative party logic, because this "in-and-out" money would be considered local money, the rebate received by each participating riding would be that much higher.

For example, a riding that would otherwise have spent only $30,000 on its local campaign, having received an additional $40,000 from the Conservative party, then giving it right back for the TV ads, would be deemed to have spent $70,000, entitling it to receive $42,000 as a rebate instead of $18,000.

For each riding that would mean having more money to pay off the debts of that campaign, more money for the next election, then more "in-and-out" money during the next election – election after election. The money would come from Elections Canada, which means, of course, from the taxpayer, which means, of course, from you and me.

But this isn't what Elections Canada intended. Spending limits exist, as the Supreme Court stated, so that "no one voice is overwhelmed by another."

Elections Canada set national and local limits for this same reason. It also intended that national spending be for national purposes, and local spending for local purposes.

Imagine for a minute that the Conservatives' position is correct, and that "in-and-out" transactions are allowable. It would then be possible for the national Conservative campaign to "encourage" every local riding in the country, all 308 of them, to receive, then send back, not just $40,000 of their $70,000 local spending limit, but $60,000 or more.

It would mean, all for the price of a small tag line at the end of an ad – "Paid for by (name of local candidate)" – that the national campaign could spend to its $18.5 million limit, plus (say) $60,000 multiplied by 308 ridings, or another almost $18.5 million – in total, $37 million.

It would also mean that each local riding, having spent its limit of $70,000, would receive a rebate of $42,000 to spend between election campaigns, for pamphlets, for local or national "in-and-out" ads. So that when the next campaign began, much of their local spending limit could again go "in-and-out" for the purposes of the national campaign.

When something is too good to be true, no matter how hard you spin it to Elections Canada, to the courts, or to the Canadian people, usually it is.

There is a principle that applies to all facets of our common law that you can't do indirectly what is expressly prohibited directly. The Elections Act, in a specific provision, even states this principle directly. The "in-and-out" nature of the Conservatives' arrangements seems, ahem, fishy.

It suggests, at best, a mind that isn't quite sure of the rightness of what it is doing. As well, it seems in some cases as if these "in-and-out" transactions happened too fast for the Conservative party's national office and their local candidates to get their stories straight. Some candidates, in Elections Canada affidavits filed in Court, said that the reason they were making these "in-and-out" transactions was to contribute to the national ad buy.

Oops.

Elections Canada has ruled that for advertising to be considered local, it must directly promote that local candidate or oppose his or her opponent, so that "Paid for by Candidate X" would have to be understood as "direct promotion."

Beyond all this is a far larger problem for the Conservatives – Stephen Harper. Besides his repeated comments about the courts and judiciary, and his oft-demonstrated attitude of "I want to do what I want to do, and I'm going to do it," it is his 2000 court case, Harper v. Canada, the leading case in the field, that ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada.

He brought it. He fought it. He lost it. He knows the issue of spending limits backward and forward. He knows what the Supreme Court said. He knows the law, its intention, its spirit, everything about it. Yet, in the election of 2006, he did what he did. It is called Fraud and he knows it.

It will be up to Elections Canada and the courts to decide what they think about his actions. Then, in an election, it will be up to Canadians to decide for themselves.

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