Posts tagged Elections Canada
All the news you need to cast a vote

This just in from outer space. The government is censoring reporting of the election but doing it badly. OK, it's not from outer space. It's from Elections Canada, who on Sept. 9 e-mailed the press to remind us that the law imposes strict requirements, if we report on polls during an election, about what information we must divulge.

State agents pry from us such things as "how many persons were contacted" and "the survey's margin of error."

This law is at once foolish and malignant, two qualities I personally try to avoid even in isolation let alone in combination.

As an attempt to prevent objectionable speech during an election this weird little restriction on what we can say (or, more exactly, what we cannot not say) is entirely feeble. We print journalists remain free to speculate as to what various parties' campaign strategies are and whether they're working without having to justify our claims in any way to the meddlers at Elections Canada. We can cite "experts" without having to explain our choice of which experts we call. We can even declare that nobody understands how a given Tory policy would work but that it's "crafty politics" without having to put any evidence on the table. But cite a poll and we must include statistical details or offend the truth police.

Actually the law on poll reporting is such ineffective censorship that it only says the first outlet to report it must provide all this tedious detail. Thus, for example, the Citizen could report Wednesday an Ipsos Reid poll on Canadians' diverse electoral concerns without pestering you with how many people in northeastern Saskatchewan with blue garage doors were consulted on the economy versus health care as their main concern. Which is fine by me and I expect by you as well so the government should just buzz off.

On the whole, I'm not much interested in polls and wish everyone spent more time discussing issues (like, say, censorship). Sometimes polls are slanted for partisan purposes, and other times they're flawed because normal people either won't talk to pollsters or are not entirely frank with them. On the other hand, pollsters rely for their reputation, and thus their income, on the accuracy of their results so they try hard to avoid such pitfalls. Anyway, how much information journalists provide about polls and how often we report on them should be between us, the newspaper, and you, our readers. It is not properly the business of people to whom these poll numbers might spell electoral doom. And are those in government so thoroughly on top of their more important tasks that they have time to spare on this sort of stuff?

OK, the only practical effect of this rule is to make us occasionally waste ink and paper including statistical caveats of minimal interest. Mathematicians don't need them, whereas to the average reader a margin of error plus some phrase like "19 times out of 20" is just a fancy way of saying "unless it's not" which they already knew. But the Canada Elections Act that lies behind this warning from Elections Canada was written by incumbent politicians to prevent us from doing something they fear might get them voted out. And even if statistically imprecise reporting of polls is unlikely to have that effect, inept censorship remains censorship and sets a very bad precedent. Of which this warning is not the only example.

Radio stations, for instance, are legally obliged to provide "equitable" political coverage. Which is just a soothing name for the government hovering over their reporting on the government to make sure it's not left to citizens to decide what's fair. Our election laws also silence third parties during elections. And if the state can dictate coverage to radio stations and citizens, why not newspapers? Why just harry us over fiddly details of poll reporting when they could prosecute us for unfair coverage of their own splendid selves?

I'll tell you. It's because you the voter, not they the incumbent politicians, should decide whether we the press are giving you the information you need to cast an informed vote. Always.

Instead, if I say Stéphane Dion is a Martian, the law lets you make up your own mind about the reliability of the claim. But if I tell you 68 per cent of Martians support the Liberal leader, I'm obliged to disclose how many little green men I talked to with how large a margin of error, lest you be hoodwinked into some harmful voting behaviour impossible to specify. It may sound silly rather than toxic. But once the censorship principle is conceded, it's hard to fight back if the application gets more obnoxious.

Stupid, yet unfair. How strangely Earthlings conduct public affairs.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Actually, the Tories might have a point...

In the battle pitting the federal Conservatives against Elections Canada, the opposition and the press, a typical Ottawa competition to see who can perform most discreditably, my money was on the Tories. Until I made a crucial blunder: I did research. The key issue is whether the Conservative party, in the last election, could donate money to riding associations to purchase advertisements very similar to national ones without those ads being counted against national campaign spending and putting the party over the national legal spending limit. It was, at least to begin with, a dispute not about facts but about how to interpret the law.

At this point I foolishly read what I hope were all the relevant sections of the 500-plus page Canada Elections Act. Here, in unavoidable legalese, is what I found.

The Act does set separate spending limits for registered parties (clause 422.1) and for their candidates (clauses 440 and 441). But Clause 422 (2) lets parties give money to local candidates and not count it as "an election expense..." So the key question is whether those candidates can spend that or any other money, up to their local limit, on what is essentially national advertising. And the crucial Clause 407 (1) defines an "election expense" as "any cost incurred, or non-monetary contribution received, by a registered party or a candidate, to the extent that the property or service for which the cost was incurred, or the nonmonetary contribution received, is used to directly promote or oppose a registered party, its leader or a candidate during an election period." What in there says local spending must happen locally or concern local issues? I see nothing.

Of course the courts might not agree with my interpretation. Or they may say the Tories did a legal thing but in a carelessly illegal way; one Liberal staffer suggested to me that the central problem was that local candidates did not technically "incur" the costs in question. Even if true, that claim hardly justifies Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc's reference to "an Enron-style accounting practice" at a Thursday press conference.

If recent allegations of document-tampering are substantiated, it's a whole different matter. But my legal opinion, worth what you paid for it less the cost of this newspaper, is that the Tories are right, even if too clever by half, on the initial issue.

It has been suggested that this dispute reflects hostility between Elections Canada and the prime minister going back to his former life as libertarian head of the National Citizens' Coalition, waging court battles against what the coalition (rightly, in my view) called election "gag laws."

But if so, it doesn't prove the primary fault lies with the Tories. I want a court to rule whether the dramatic police raid on Conservative party headquarters was necessary. And I'd certainly like to know how not only journalists but Liberal staffers heard of it in time to film it.

Especially because former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley took a strangely vocal role in policy debates for the head of an organization that, as part of the executive not the legislative branch of government, is supposed to enforce laws not create them. Liberal MP Ken Dryden wrote in the Toronto Star on Wednesday that the Tory financing scheme "isn't what Elections Canada intended" and that "Elections Canada set national and local limits" because it "intended that national spending be for national purposes, and local spending for local purposes..." as if it, not Parliament, had created the Canada Elections Act. Then Mr. Dryden waved away the Tory position because "Elections Canada has ruled that for advertising to be considered local, it must directly promote that local candidate or oppose his or her opponent...," as if the centuries-old struggle to keep the executive branch from creating law and acting as judge in its own case had recently been quietly and benignly settled in favour of Charles I.

Mr. Dryden in his article and Mr. LeBlanc in his press conference both cited the Canada Elections Act provision that you cannot do indirectly what is expressly prohibited directly. OK. But it cannot be read as a Phantom of the Paradise style "All clauses that are excluded shall be deemed to be included" provision. If the Act does not directly forbid local candidates buying national ads, it does not indirectly forbid it either.

The Tories responded to this ruckus in a manner at once paranoid and juvenile and it worked about as well as you'd expect. But it doesn't mean there's anything scandalous in their challenging a technical Elections Canada ruling in court, even if they ultimately lose.

Besides, on my reading of the law, they might win.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]