Friday, March 21, 2014

On foreseeable dangers

The NDP is in the midst of its cross-country consultations on the Unfair Elections Act - with Charlie Angus' visit to Regina today just one of the many stops along the way. But while the Cons' insistence on ramming through changes to Canada's elections law makes it unlikely that we'll be able to work through all of the effects of the bill, let's look at just a few as-of-yet-unexplored consequences of one of the more familiar provisions.

Here's the language which rewrites the definition of an "election expense" to exclude communication with past donors:
376(3) The commercial value of services provided to a registered party for the purpose of soliciting — by mail, telephone or other electron­ic means — monetary contributions is not an election expense under subsection (1), as long as the soliciting is directed only towards individuals who have made at least one monetary contribution of $20 or more to the registered party or to one of its registered associations, nomination contestants or candidates in the five years before polling day for the election period in which the services are provided.
The most obvious implication of the new language is that parties are able to contact past donors directly. And so far, any public analysis seems to have been limited to questioning whether there's any reason to exempt that spending (and that spending alone) from what's otherwise a clean and sensible definition of election expenses.

But let's take a closer look at the problems the exclusion might raise.

On one hand, it's far from clear that the Cons in particular (or indeed other parties wishing to spend more than the campaign limit) would see the exclusion as anything but an invitation to ignore the rules which are supposed to limit campaign spending.

We already know from the in-and-out scandal that the Cons believe they're entitled to reassign campaign spending however they want - converting it from national to local spending or transferring it among ridings - merely by attaching a barely-noticeable tagline to an existing ad campaign.

So who thinks they'd have any scruples about blatantly disregarding the election spending cap through ads which contain a similarly invisible disclaimer to the effect of "this message is directed at past Conservative contributors", figuring (as proved to be the case with in-and-out) that they'd get away with it for at least a couple of election cycles?

On the other hand, while the exclusion would provide a means for the Cons to flout the law, it would also complicate matters for other parties who (a) care about following the law, and (b) don't want to carve communications with past donors off of the balance of their campaigns.

After all, a change in the definition of "election expenses" also affects a party's ability to claim the reimbursements associated with such expenses. So parties would be required to put in added time and effort to track and report which direct communications go to past donors rather than other voters - or else risk running afoul of the law themselves.

All of this - a glaring spending loophole for the unscrupulous, and added compliance costs for anybody who cares about following the rules - would come from a single definitional change which the Cons haven't even pretended to explain. And that combination of foreseeable dangers and a complete lack of justification applies to the entire bill - making it all the more important for Canadians to speak out before our political system is irreparably damaged for the 2015 general election.

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