Time for parliament to tighten election rules on third parties and foreign money

It may never be known how much influence foreign money, wielded by hostile political advocacy groups, played in the Conservative Party’s defeat in 2015.

A complaint led by defeated Tory MP Joan Crockatt claims that federal election rules were broken by organizations like Leadnow, which used money donated from the U.S. to skew the result.

That may or may not be the case, and the Commissioner of Elections should look closely at the allegation.

But what is clear is that there is a loophole in the Elections Act big enough to drive a bulldozer through — and it is Parliament’s job to close it.

To recap, the Calgary Herald reported this week that Crockatt and others lodged a complaint with Elections Canada alleging foreign money was donated to third-party organizations and then used to influence the 2015 election, potentially in contravention of spending limits.

A total of 114 third parties — people or groups producing election advertising who are not registered candidates, political parties or riding associations — were registered with Elections Canada in 2015, up from 55 in 2011.

According to the complaint, nine of those organizations were funded at least in part by the New York-based Tides Foundation, which donated a total of US $1.5 million.

Leadnow — which organized a 2015 anyone-but-Harper strategic voting campaign which targeted a number of ridings where it considered the Conservatives vulnerable  — is not included on the list of Tides grantees, but the researcher and writer Vivian Krause has claimed the organization is funded indirectly through the Sisu Institute Society, a B.C.-based non-profit which in 2015 received US $795,300, according to the Tides list.

In a statement, a Leadnow spokeswoman said no international money went toward its 2015 campaign. ‎”We have filed and submitted an electoral activity report and campaign audit with Elections Canada. We are in compliance with all laws,” she said. 

But the group has not been shy about the impact of its Defeat Harper campaign on the election result, claiming its 6000 volunteers helped defeat 25 Conservative candidates of the 29 ridings targeted.

Crockatt’s complaint, and another to Elections Commissioner Yves Coté by Alberta Conservative MP Michael Cooper, is focused on whether the third parties complied with the Canada Elections Act.

My suspicion is that they did — because the regulations are so inadequate when it comes to third parties and foreign money.

In the words of Sen. Linda Frum, we have 20th-century rules regulating 21st-century political activities.

As Coté revealed in his testimony before a Senate committee, while Canadians can only donate $1,550 to political parties and candidates, and union and corporate donations are banned completely, the compliance rules for foreign money are much more lax.

As long as the funds are received by a Canadian citizen or resident six months before the election writ is dropped, there is no restriction on the use of money from foreign sources. The third party can then use the money as it wishes.

The funding loophole is not the only area where parliamentary action is required. Provided they act independently from any political party or candidates, third-party activities during an election period are only regulated to the extent they are related to election advertising.

Third parties are limited to spending $150,000 per campaign, or $3000 per riding on advertising, including the cost of production and distribution.

But there are no limits on how much they can spend on polling, holding events or canvassing voters in person or by telephone.

Third parties are increasingly doing these things, thus acting like political parties — and yet they have a completely different compliance regime.

Social media-literate organizations with vast banks of volunteers have been able to outspend political parties, which have to register all of their expenses.

Neither access to foreign funding nor lax spending rules are fair to political parties.

Frum believes Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand should be enforcing the regulations more vigorously. “He could have said the regulations are not adequate,” she told the Post in an interview.

But it is clear that Mayrand has no intention of acting unilaterally.

During his appearance before the Senate committee last year, he said the Elections Act is reviewed periodically. “It was reviewed in 2014 (and) Parliament did not find it appropriate to amend these rules regarding third parties … Parliamentarians should make the decision because the issue is a matter of public policy … Perhaps this public policy should be reviewed in 2019,” he said.

Frum will next week bring forward a private members’ bill that seeks to prohibit the use of foreign funds in political activity in Canada.

The government should adopt and promote it, but that seems unlikely to happen.

The Liberals already have their own legislation to reform the Elections Act, which is at early-stage reading in the House of Commons. While C-33 undoes many of the Conservatives’ Fair Elections Act reforms, such as bringing back the use of vouching for eligible voters, it makes no mention of third-party influence or foreign money.

The government should adopt and promote it, but that seems unlikely to happen

Given the Liberals were the net beneficiaries of advocacy work by Leadnow, the Dogwood Initiative and Greenpeace Canada, that is no surprise.

But politics is a fickle business. They are perhaps one pipeline away from being a target of Tides’ largesse.

The argument has been made — not least by Stephen Harper before the Supreme Court of Canada, when he was head of the National Citizens Coalition — that any checks on third parties are an unwarranted restriction on freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights.

But we have, appropriately, tightened the rules to limit the influence of money in our politics. Should we really be making an exception for foreign money?

• Email: jivison@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

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