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Opinion

Kenney, Ford to spend $60-million on PR war against Trudeau’s carbon tax, and that ain’t right

By Michael Harris      

Canada’s chief electoral officer says that what Kenney and Ford are doing is okay because the activities of provincial governments, including advertising campaigns, aren’t subject to the Canada Elections Act. Democracy could disappear through this loophole.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage, pictured on May 2, 2019, scrumming after the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources on Bill C-69. Mr. Kenney, whose head has gone up several hat sizes since crushing Rachel Notley in the recent Alberta election, will be travelling to Ontario to woo immigrant voters back to the Tory fold on Andrew Scheer’s behalf, writes Michael Harris. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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HALIFAX—So now premiers Jason Kenney and Doug Ford plan to actively campaign in the 2019 federal election.

Kenney, whose head has gone up several hat sizes since crushing Rachel Notley in the recent Alberta election, will be travelling to Ontario to woo immigrant voters back to the Tory fold on Andrew Scheer’s behalf.

It is not yet known if Mr. Curry-in-a-Hurry has lost his touch with new Canadians. Kenney, who organized the immigrant vote for Stephen Harper in the federal party’s glory days, wasn’t much help in the 2015 election when Trudeau swept the GTA, ousting a slew of Conservative incumbents in the process.

More than that, Kenney will be spending $30-million of Alberta taxpayer money to conduct a public relations war against the Trudeau government’s carbon tax, critics of the tar sands and environmentalists. His political cousin, Premier Doug Ford, will be doing the same thing in Ontario—pumping $30-million of taxpayers money into an anti-carbon tax campaign aimed at bringing Trudeau down.

In Ford’s case, he has carried the dirty work a little further. His government introduced legislation requiring every gas station in the province to place government-issued anti-carbon tax stickers on their pumps. If they don’t endorse this blatant piece of partisan politicking, they face fines of up to $10,000 a day. What’s next, Ford’s face on the pumps holding up his fist?

The proposed stickers do not mention that the federal government will be returning the lion’s share of the revenues collected under the carbon tax to consumers. As always, a half-truth is a lie.

No one should be surprised at such underhandedness. The modern day Conservative Party has always found ways to get around the rules governing elections. Or to cheat, depending on your sensibilities.

While he worked for the National Citizens Coalition, Stephen Harper went the legal route to do away with third-party spending limits during an election. He lost that case, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that spending limits during an election were constitutional.

In the 2006 election, the Conservatives broke the rules on election spending in the so-called In-and Out-scandal.

The CPC transferred money from the party’s national coffers into the accounts of local campaigns. Then the local campaigns returned the money to the central party.

That meant that the national party could exceed national spending limits on advertising (by a cool million dollars in 2006), and the local campaigns could claim a 60 per cent rebate on the funds they had briefly been given but never used.

Fives years later, four senior members of the Conservative Party were charged under the Canada Elections Act. In March 2012, the charges were dropped against these individuals. In return, the CPC’s fundraising arm pled guilty to overspending in the 2006 campaign, and attempting to fraudulently gain nearly a million dollars from taxpayers. The party was fined $230,000.

In the 2008 election, Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary and ethics spokesman Dean Del Mastro was caught cheating during an election. He was convicted of three offences: overspending on his campaign; failing to report a personal contribution of $21,000; and filing a false report to Elections Canada. For that, he served one month in jail and three months under house arrest.

In 2013, Harper’s intergovernmental affairs minister, Peter Penashue, resigned over spending irregularities in his 2011 campaign for re-election. He lost his bid for re-election.

But the elephant story of the 2011 federal election was the Robocalls Scandal, the biggest unsolved political crime in Canadian history. Someone tried to steal a federal election in 261 ridings.

Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley found that “widespread” voter suppression had taken place in at least six federal ridings. Although he didn’t name the Conservative Party per se, the judge called it a “concerted campaign” by a person or persons who had access to the constituent information management system (CIMS) database, which just happens to be controlled by the CPC.

And even in the convention that selected Andrew Scheer as Stephen Harper’s successor, several Conservative candidates accused each other of cheating.

Kevin O’Leary for one accused unnamed fellow candidates of mass voter fraud.

Maxime Bernier, who has since left the Conservatives to found his own party, accused O’Leary of vote buying.

A hasty investigation by party officials of Bernier’s charge led to 1,351 fraudulent memberships being thrown out.

Bernier was still troubled, wondering if the CPC had fudged the vote count that led to Scheer’s razor-thin victory. Hard to tell. The accounting firm Deloitte never actually certified the count, but merely observed the counting process. Chief returning officer David Filmon destroyed the ballots immediately after the vote.

Whether you call it cheating, dirty pool, or the new politics, there is the distinct odour of decomposing fish in what Kenney and Ford have planned.

True, premiers have helped or opposed parties in past federal elections, but not with the taxpayers’ chequebook. Surely the place for Kenney to campaign against Justin Trudeau is in Alberta, not Ontario. What business does Kenney have working the streets of the GTA when his jurisdiction is thousands of kilometres away?

Will Ontario voters appreciate the intrusion? Will Alberta voters appreciate the time their premier is taking off from his job to campaign in another province?

In Ford’s case, if he wants to inform voters about the carbon tax, why put half the story on his gas pump stickers? Until he adds the other half, the part about the carbon tax rebate and who gets it, the stickers are just more fake information.

But the real problem with what Kenney and Ford are doing is what it always is with Conservatives at election time—the money. In this case, we are talking about $60-million of potential propaganda against the Trudeau Liberals. That is a large enough sum to skew the playing field in election 2019, maybe even change the government.

Once again, the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections has missed the point of what is happening here, just as it did when it prematurely closed the robocalls investigation before getting to the bottom of that fraud.

Scheer has just received a $60-million windfall that would never be allowed if Kenney and Ford were treated like any other third party during an election. They would have to register with Elections Canada, report their contributions, and be subject to spending limits. They could never spend that amount of cash helping Scheer.

Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, Stéphane Perrault, says that what Kenney and Ford are doing is okay. Why? Because the activities of provincial governments, including advertising campaigns, aren’t subject to the Canada Elections Act.

That is a loophole through which a democracy could disappear.

Correction: This column incorrectly reported that Elections Canada had missed the point on what was happening here and prematurely closed the robocalls investigation, but it’s the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, not Elections Canada that’s responsible for this. This has been corrected. 

Michael Harris is an award-winning journalist and author. 

The Hill Times 

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