It is very hard to use foreign money to influence Canadian elections
Happy slightly belated Victoria Day, Vice-istas!
Let’s get started with a perennial-ish topic experiencing a sudden resurgence in the headlines, courtesy of a still-unseen-but-allegedly-incendiary report alleging possible electoral shenanigans on the 2015 federal campaign trail: foreign interference!
Specifically, the as-yet-uncorroborated claim that sinister outside interests — including, but not limited to, U.S.-based environmental and social justice groups — may have funnelled cash into avowedly anti-Conservative advertising and activism on the hustings, in an effort to get voters to rally behind the candidate most likely to defeat the local Tory nominee — and, on a macro level, oust then-PM Stephen Harper’s incumbent government from office.
That, in a nutshell, is the gist of the claim being put forward by “Canada Decides,” a newly formed group whose members include former Calgary Centre Conservative MP Joan Crockatt, whose riding was among those targeted for such persuasion efforts. (As yet, they have refused to release the formal complaint, but have helpfully shared the highlights with select media outlets.)
Here’s a sampling of some of the ensuing Kady-asking queries:
@kady Is the foreign funding thing real? Am super sceptical.
— Jordan (@GhostTenant) May 24, 2017
— Scott Unger (@scottu487) May 24, 2017
— Barb Adamski (@BarbAdamski) May 24, 2017
Before wading in, I should note that my VICE Canada compatriot Drew Brown has written up a fairly definitive explanation of why there’s little reason to fear that “foreign interference” actually changed the course of the last election, which you can peruse here.
Features editor Justin Ling also did his best to unpush the collective panic button in a fact-heavy Twitter thread yesterday, albeit with limited success amongst those who really, truly, want to believe.
In a nutshell, under the current laws, it is absolutely, positively illegal to actively collect money from foreign donors for the explicit purpose of mounting an ad campaign in support of, or against a particular party or candidate.
Groups like Leadnow can, however, use their own resources to do so, even if some of that money may have been given to the organization by a group or individual who otherwise wouldn’t be permitted to directly contribute cash to an advertising push. The key is whether the funding was specifically earmarked for advertising purposes, or just added to the organization’s general operating fund. If it was the latter, it can be put to any purpose the group sees fit, including paying for part — or even all — of an advertising campaign.
This, incidentally, is also true for individuals: You don’t have to be a group to register as a third party advertiser. All you have to do is file the necessary paperwork with Elections Canada.
If you raise money to cover the costs, you have to follow the rules as far as eligible donors — which are actually a bit looser than for parties and candidates, as you can accept money from trade unions and corporations, provided they do business (or, in the case of unions, collectively bargain on behalf of employees) in Canada.
There are also no caps on how much you can donate, but there are stringent limits on how much can actually be spent. According to the latest Elections Canada bulletin, the base limit for a 37 day election is $211,200, with a cap of $4,244 in any one riding.
That amount is, however, prorated to accommodate longer campaigns, which is why the marathon-length 78 day election period in 2015 had a final spending limit of $439,410.81 overall, and $8,788.22 per riding.
According to the post-election financial reports, no third party came close to hitting the max — Leadnow, for instance, spent just $137,545.75. What’s more, the same report shows the group raised nearly three times that much from Canadian contributors, which pretty much puts to bed any notion that the campaign was dependent on foreign funding.
That spending limit is also — rightly — far lower than the caps on party spending. which clocked in at just under $55 million for overall expenses, including advertising, in 2015. (No party came close to hitting that cap, either.)
Even if the groups involved — all of whom dutifully registered with Elections Canada as third party advertisers, and have filed publicly available reports on the money they spent during the writ — were relying on ill-gotten gains to pay for their anti-Conservative ad campaigns, the chance that it actually made a difference in the final results is a wee bit of a stretch, barring some sort of dramatic revelation of truly off-book behaviour like literally stuffing ballot boxes with bogus votes, or hacking the results being transmitted to Elections Canada, which no one, not even Canada Decides, is alleging took place.
Which, incidentally, doesn’t mean there aren’t a variety of middling-to-excellent arguments in favour of further limiting the ability of those not directly engaged in the political process — parties and candidates, that is — to spend cold hard cash in an attempt to influence the outcome of an election. One way to do that would be to extend the ban on contributions from corporations, unions and associations to include third party advertisers, and possibly put a cap on how much can be donated, period.
The federal Liberals have also mused about bringing in limits on spending outside the election period — which is currently a free-for-all, as the laws only kick in during a campaign. Those could, in theory, apply to all political advertising, regardless of the buyer, although it’s a good bet you’d see some serious pushback from some, if not all, political parties at the prospect of curtailing their unfettered ability to spend their own money outside the writ.
As for right now, though — and again, barring any major revelation of third parties behaving badly — there doesn’t appear to be any reason to fear that sinister globalist forces orchestrated the election of the Liberals, or even the defeat of certain Conservatives.
Moving on (finally, I know!) to the super-thrilling-and-exciting-and-hey-why-are-you-running-away Conservative leadership race, which is set to wrap up this weekend with a “leadership event” at the conveniently Pearson airport-adjacent Toronto Congress Centre.
The eventual victory of Quebecois libertarian Maxime Bernier seems all but assured, which may or may not be what has made Christian Paas-Lang ponder whether it was a fair fight.
— Christian Paas-Lang (@ChristianPaas) May 23, 2017
So, just like I was able to (fingers crossed) assuage any sudden pang of uncertainty over the legitimacy of the last federal election, I’m delighted to be able to say that — again, barring any unexpected and thunderous developments — there’s no indication that the Conservative leadership process is unduly biased in favour of any particular candidate.
Very very quick backgrounder for anyone who may not be familiar with the selection system: It’s technically one-vote-per-member, with a preferential ranked ballot, but using a weighted system where each riding is worth 100 points, which are allocated based on the proportion of the vote each contestant receives.
(Yes, the Conservatives, who are, by and large, passionately supportive of first-past-the-post on the federal election front, use both a ranked ballot and a variant of proportional representation to choose a party leader. Life is funny sometimes.)
While the fact that all ridings are given equal weight regardless of the number of active members (which, in some western ridings, can be into the thousands, while there are Quebec outposts with fewer than 20 names on the roll) may lead to some imbalance on a micro-level, the number of candidates on the ballot — which still stands at 14, as Kevin
O’Leary is still listed — coupled with the fact that points are divvied up, and not a winner-takes-all system, would make it very difficult to coast to victory by focusing exclusively on the ridings with the highest relative per-vote value.
That might not have been the case if there hadn’t been quite so many candidates in the running, but at the moment, it’s tough to see that the rules are unfairly punishing — or assisting — any one campaign.
— Nick McLean (@Nocmclean) May 24, 2017
Weeeelllll, not actively, acutely worried just yet — as it is still relatively early in the process, which likely won’t really start to pick up until after the Conservative race winds down. Plus, so much of the initial coverage was devoted to those who decided against joining the fray, like Nathan Cullen and Megan Leslie, as well as anticipating the eventual arrival of Ontario provincial New Democrat wunderkid Jagmeet Singh, who finally made it official two weeks ago.
The party also ended up going with a less-than-optimum timeline from a purely news media-centric perspective, as the race will likely start to pick up steam over the summer, which is not great for drawing in those all-important eyeballs.
But now that Singh is on the ballot, there will inevitably be more interest in the next planned leadership debate, as Singh is a comparatively unknown factor outside Ontario NDP politics, which means people will likely tune into this Sunday’s planned leadership debate to see how he performs.
Beyond that, I’d advise nervous New Democrats to wait until September before allowing themselves to quietly freak out at the lack of public — or press — interest.
— Richard Forbes (@Richardjforbes) May 24, 2017
Ahh, the traditional mid-to-late May prorogation rumour — a Canadian classic, truly, matched only by the similarly reliable early-July-ish cabinet shuffle speculation.
Which isn’t to say that neither will happen and, in fact, I’d say both are fairly likely to transpire, although I suspect that if the government were able to engineer an early summer recess — by June 9th, say, instead of keeping the Commons fires burning until the scheduled adjournment date of June 23 — it likely wouldn’t be immediately followed by formal prorogation, as there’s no advantage to doing so at that point.
Instead, the prime minister could wait until just before the House was set to reopen for business in mid-September to hit up Rideau Hall with the request, which would allow him to either schedule a Speech from the Throne for the same day that MPs were already scheduled to return, or put it off for a week or two, although there’s no obvious reason why he’d want to delay the launch of a new session.
Prorogation, for those who need a refresher (ed: thanks.) forces an end to the parliamentary session — which started in December 2015 with the opening throne speech — and basically wipes the order paper (list of all House and Senate business) clear, offering a fresh start. Both government bills and private members bills can be easily resurrected in a new session, if the majority of the House of Commons is in favour.
Proroguing immediately after Parliament rises for the summer, however, would be risky, as it makes it much more difficult to recall it in the event of an actual emergency.
And just to respond to what I may be misreading as the unspoken suggestion that prorogation, itself, constitutes a potentially controversial move: No, not really — not when it is done in a majority setting, right around the halfway mark of a government’s anticipated term in office before the next election.
There’s nothing particularly nefarious about wanting to kick off the last half of, what you hope will be, your first of many mandates with a new Speech from the Throne, as it gives the government the opportunity to lay out its priorities for the two years left on the clock. Honestly, if they went much past the end of the year without hitting the reboot button, it would be eyebrow-raising, and fall is as good a time as any to do it.
That’s all for this week! See you next Thursday!
Send all your burning Canadian political questions to @Kady, and they might just get answered next week.
Cover: Flickr / Leadnow