Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Conservatives are making ad spending scandal worse

The federal Conservatives are heading into trouble over allegations of election spending fraud and money-laundering.
It's more complex than the usual scandal. But if the unproven Elections Canada claims are true, Harper and company are in the process of alienating a lot of the uncommitted voters they need onside in the next election.
In what seems a bad mistake, the Conservatives are confirming the substance of the charges.
And they're offering self-destructive justifications, ones that leave the politicians strapped to the scandal if it goes off a cliff.
Here are the allegations, boiled down.
There are advertising spending limits for parties in federal election campaigns. Parliament decided that a party with a big pile of cash shouldn't be able to buy a victory.
In the last election campaign, the Conservatives' national campaign was allowed to spend $18.3 million on advertising - no more.
Candidates had separate individual spending limits.
The allegation is that the party wanted to spend more than $18.3 million on national advertising.
Many candidates local couldn't raise enough to reach their spending limits.
So, the national party arranged to send cheques for $4,000 to $29,000 to selected local candidates.
And they turned around and wrote cheques back to the party for the same amount, often in the day.
Ostensibly, the local candidates were saying they wanted to run more TV and radio ads to help in their local races. The national office was supposed to help by buying them.
But really, Elections Canada alleges, it was a just a shuffle to get around the election spending limits.
The result, according to the elections office, was that the Conservatives spent $1.1 million more on ads than they were allowed.
It gets worse. Local campaigns are eligible for a 60-per-cent rebate from taxpayers on the money they spend. The national campaigns aren't.
The deal, if it worked as Election Canada claims, cost taxpayers $700,000.
The Conservatives have offered two defences.
First, they say the candidates really wanted those national ad campaigns to run. They recognized that they mattered less than the leaders and hoped the party effort would help them to victory.
But Elections Canada has evidence that contradicts that. Mostly, the local candidates and their volunteer agents just did what they were told. Sometimes, they said the national ads actually hurt them.
Here on Vancouver Island, the Nanaimo-Cowichan Conservatives complained they were made to pay for advertising that hurt their effort. The ads, directed at a national audience, attacked the Liberals. The local Conservatives' main opponent was New Democrat incumbent Jean Crowder. The attacks, by discouraging Liberal votes, might have helped Crowder to victory.
The second defence is the really damning one.
The Conservatives have claimed Elections Canada is picking on them, a theme echoed by some commentators.
All the other parties do it too, the Conservatives complain.
It's a defence that never worked at my house. Wrong doesn't become right if it enough people vote for it. (If the other kids jumped off the bridge. . . )
Worse for the Conservatives, there's no evidence that the other parties did do it too. Former candidates for other parties and observers say they don't recall any large-scale funding shuffles to pay for national ads or other dubious transactions.
By making that claim, the Conservatives haven't claimed the high road. They've chosen to argue they only that they obeyed the letter of the law. (Even that has been cast into doubt by some of the evidence, including early questions about the shuffle's possible illegality.)
Harper's defence - and the claim that Elections Canada is picking on the Conservatives - will fly with the party's core supporters.
But most uncommitted voters will likely find the allegation that Elections Canada is singling out the party for harassment unbelievable.
The Conservatives won a minority government in large part because they promised an end to dubious campaign practices.
Now it looks more like they embraced them.
Footnote: Twelve B.C. Conservative candidates took part in the in-and-out funding shuffle: Dick Harris, Cariboo-Prince George; Jay Hill, Prince George-Peace River; Jim Abbott, Kootenay-Columbia; Ron Cannan, Kelowna-Lake Country; Colin Mayes, Okanagan-Shuswap; Stockwell Day, Okanagan-Coquihalla; Norm Sowden, Nanaimo-Cowichan; Troy DeSouza, Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca; George Drazenovic, Burnaby-Douglas; Marc Dalton, Burnaby-New Westminster; Elizabeth Pagtakhan, Vancouver East; and Kanman Wong, Vancouver Kingsway.