Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Conservative chutzpah on the in-and-out scandal

After all the legal expense and arguments, the Harper Conservatives cave in respect of a significant aspect in their court dispute with Elections Canada over their 2006 election overspending: the Conservatives have admitted the disputed campaign ads were national ads not local. Yet they say local candidates should be on the hook for essentially national expenditures. You have to think that this admission brings them closer to losing this case.

So why did they give up on the "local expenditure" argument at this point? Well, it had been largely discredited by the evidence that's been revealed. And perhaps they're feeling a new sense of freedom given the political landscape. There's the prospect of a looming majority government on the horizon. If they do win one, then we might be seeing a road map for new election spending laws in Canada unfold in this case.

Here's the CP report by Tim Naumetz framing yesterday's development:
The Conservative party acknowledges in Federal Court documents that $1.3 million worth of advertising allotted to individual Tory candidates in the 2006 election was in reality produced for the party's national campaign and had no bearing on candidates or local issues.
The question of whether the Conservatives should have assigned the cost of the radio and television ads to their national campaign, which has spending limits under the Elections Act that are separate from the ceilings for local candidates, is central to what has been dubbed the "in and out" controversy.

Elections Canada alleges the Conservative party used the transactions to skirt its national campaign spending cap by $1.1 million.
It should be noted that the taxpayers have paid to defend Elections Canada throughout this lawsuit, just as we would if the Conservatives sued any other institution of government. Taxpayer funds have funded this lawsuit, only to now see the Conservatives change their legal position at the last minute, dropping the "local expenditure" argument after it's been totally discredited. They likely knew they couldn't sustain that argument in the long run of the case. Nevertheless they put Elections Canada through the ringer in defending that issue and they've put the taxpayer to expense in paying for it. We've paid over $100,000 as of July to defend the Conservative lawsuit on behalf of Elections Canada. I'm sure it's a much higher figure than that by now. But anything we taxpayers can do to help the Conservative party in its contortions to avoid accountability, by all means.

The upshot of the legal position the Conservatives are now taking should also be noted. They contend that it doesn't matter that the ads were national in content. If local candidates want to buy national ads, they should be allowed to do so. As long as the national ads have local taglines.

The problem with this argument of course is that if you accept it, there is a blurring of the national and local spending limits, rendering the national limit in particular meaningless. If you buy the Conservative point of view, you are saying the rich national party - which it is at the moment - can reach down into the ridings and top up all the local candidate budgets where there is spending room. So once the national party reaches its $18 million or so national spending limit in a given campaign, it can then look down to the 308 local Conservative budgets across the country, see how much spending room is left in them, top those budgets up by transferring money in and out - and then buy national ads, with local taglines on them. In that way, the national spending limit of $18 million can be expanded to, say, $20 million, or $24 million, or more. Depending on how much the national party has to spend and depending on how much room there is in the local budgets. And of course, the taxpayer will reimburse the cash rich party for 60% of the local candidates' "expenditures" as long as they get 10% of the vote.

Isn't it good to be Conservative these days? Twisting and turning, advantaging themselves in their legal positions, yet pretending to be the party of law and order. You have to be paying very careful attention. They count on people not getting it. That's the truly cynical thing about all these machinations.