16 February 2015

Money and Politics – the Chronic Enforcement Problem #nlpoli

We can have all the rules in the world about how political parties and political candidates receive and spend money in Newfoundland and Labrador, but they are useless without meaningful enforcement.

It’s been illegal since 2011 for municipalities to make political contributions.  The association representing the province’s towns and cities knew about the 2011 amendment to the Municipalities Act.

The people at the electoral office didn’t.

That came to light in a couple of stories at the Telegram on the political contributions by municipalities.  In the first one, they put the question to the fellow at the elections office responsible for enforcing the campaign finance rules. He’s also the deputy chief electoral officer

“A significant portion of the municipalities in this province are incorporated. If the municipality is incorporated, they would be able to make a contribution,” said Bruce Chaulk at Elections NL, when asked about Butt’s comments.

As Ashley Fitzgerald pointed out in the second story, the Telegram had found out about the amendment in 2011.  The elections office had an interesting excuse for their blunder:  Chaulk said he is only responsible for the rules under the Elections Act. He’s not responsible for anything else.

“I don’t have control over other legislations nor a requirement to look at other legislations,” he said. “I know what my Act says and we have to manage our operations based on that Act.”

Not only did Chaulk get caught out by his ignorance, he doubled down and played for incompetence as well.

Chaulk’s office is responsible for enforcing elections rules, full stop.  The fact that the ban on donations by municipalities in the province isn’t in the Elections Act doesn’t absolve Chaulk and his colleagues of their general duty as public servants to enforce laws.

All of ‘em.

Chaulk offered a very narrow bureaucratic response that’s a fundamental affront to the notion of public service and the responsibility of public servants to safeguard the public interest.

He’s also wrong on another aspect.  Chaulk and his boss have no control over legislation at all.  The House of Assembly does.  Chaulk and the other officials at the electoral office have a duty.

They have a responsibility.

Partisan Bias in the Electoral Office

It’s not the first time they have failed.

In 2009,  police investigations coming out of the House spending scandal made it clear that some Conservative Party activities dating back to 2001 had been funded with illegally-obtained money.

The chief electoral officer at the time, who had been an active Tory partisan right up to the moment of his appointment,  refused to investigate Conservative Party finances.  He claimed the by-election had been run properly even though there was evidence – from a police investigation – that money used to pay one campaign worker had been diverted illegally from the House of Assembly. 

There were other signs of money flowing illegally from the House accounts to the party  yet the former Tory candidate and district association executive sat on his hands.

While the more recent problem at the office is related to bungling and the other one was improper partisanship,  the office responsible for running the province’s elections has big problems.  They’ve had ‘em for a long time.

They are most evident in the enforcement of rules about campaign financing.

Under the Elections Act, 1991,  the electoral office has a duty to “conduct periodic investigations and examinations” of the financial affairs of the province’s political parties.  There’s indication the office has ever conducted one:  there’s no mention in recent annual reports.  This is the power that should have applied in 2009 but it could have been used even for just a spot-check.

Apparently not.

Chronic Lack of Enforcement

Financial reports remain a persistent problem.  Party contribution lists and financial summaries are only up to date to 2012. The 2011 report for political parties doesn’t distinguish between campaign-period contributions and other contributions, as required by section 299 of the Elections Act.  There have been no by-election candidate financials since 2011, not even for the two by-elections held in 2013, let alone the 2014 batch.

Contributions to candidates have to be reported to Elections Dannystan within four months of polling day under section 304. Contributions to parties have to be reported by the first of April each year.  The only explanation for the CEO’s repeated failure is that they don’t enforce the rules they have plainly in front of them.  Those are in the Elections Act, incidentally, so Bruce Chaulk and his colleagues can’t claim they don;t know about it.

The Elections Act doesn’t actually set a time for publication but the electoral office has been publishing reports regularly since 1996. This is the longest lapse on record.

We could have the best campaign finance laws in the country.  They’d be of no value since the office of the chief electoral officer has been – at least since the deliberate appointment of the partisan Paul Reynolds – unable to discharge the considerable responsibilities the office has to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.