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Ex-elections watchdog pans campaign spending boost

OTTAWA - Canada's former elections watchdog is panning the Harper government's electoral reform bill for giving political parties both a front and back door route to significantly increase spending during campaigns.

And opposition parties say it's no accident that will benefit the party with the deepest pockets — which happens to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Indeed, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair charged Wednesday that the bill is mostly about "loading the dice" in favour of the Conservatives, whom he called "serial cheaters."

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former chief electoral officer, is more charitable. He believes the Fair Elections Act, introduced Tuesday, is relatively solid overall and contains numerous beneficial changes.

But he disagrees with at least one provision, which would allow political parties to exempt an untold amount of money spent on fundraising activities from their campaign spending limits.

"I don't think that this is a good idea," Kingsley said in an interview.

Spending money on fundraising is part of the cost of mounting a campaign "and that's an expenditure," he said.

"So why it would become an exception, I don't know ... The only reason I can think of is that it's becoming an important expenditure. If they were spending peanuts on it, they would not exclude it."

Kingsley called the provision "a reverse way of increasing the (spending) ceiling even further," which he noted the bill is directly proposing to increase by five per cent.

The spending limit in the 2011 campaign was $21 million for political parties that ran a full slate of candidates. The proposed five per cent hike would give each party an extra $1 million to play with. Excluding fundraising expenses could potentially give them millions more.

Just how much more is unclear, as is how Elections Canada would police the provision.

The proposal is complicated. It would allow parties to exclude money spent during campaigns to solicit funds from donors who have contributed $20 or more to them at any point over the previous five years.

Parties would need sophisticated databases to separate existing donors from new donors during campaigns. And Kingsley said they'd have to apply the percentage of new donors who responded to a pitch for money to the cost of making that pitch and report that as a campaign expense.

Since parties are not required to disclose the names of contributors who give less than $200, it's not clear how Elections Canada would be able to verify new versus existing donors.

And while party financial returns are required to be vetted by an external auditor, Elections Canada itself has no power to demand to see the books or receipts to verify claimed expenses. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has repeatedly asked for that power but the new bill does not offer it.

Moreover, what parties classify as a fundraising expense appears to vary widely.

The Conservatives, which consistently raise far more money than any other party, report fundraising expenses of just $74,000 in 2011 — about $10,000 more than it spent in the subsequent non-election year.

The Liberals reported $2 million in fundraising expenses in 2011 and the NDP $3.1 million, even though neither party came close to raising as much money as the Tories.

Liberal national director Jeremy Broadhurst said he's certain the Tories spend more than the other parties on fundraising but financial reporting requirements allow a fair amount of latitude in how such expenses are categorized.

For instance, he said some pitches for donations could be included as communications expenses or, if they include a questionnaire, as research expenses. Or they could just be lumped into the "other" expenses category.

Presumably, it would be in every party's interests to include as much as possible under the fundraising expenses category during a campaign, in order to indirectly bump up their spending limit.

Given that the Conservatives are already flush with cash, Mulcair said the proposal is just one of many ways in which the Tories are "tipping the scales" in their own favour.

The Conservatives raised $18.2 million last year, compared to $11.6 million for the Liberals and $8.2 million for the NDP.

Mulcair said the proposal to raise the cap on individual contributions to $1,500 a year from $1,200 is another measure that favours the Conservatives since they have "a large number of wealthy donors."

He further accused the government of trying to suppress the votes of people who don't have two pieces of identification — the young, poor and aboriginal peoples whom he suggested don't typically vote Conservative — by eliminating their ability to have someone vouch for their identity.

"So, they're loading the dice here," Mulcair said.

The NDP proposed Wednesday that the bill be sent to committee before being given second reading in the Commons, which would allow much greater scope for amending it.

If the government is serious about wanting fairer elections, Mulcair said it would back the NDP proposal. If it refused, he said that would confirm his suspicions that the bill "is mostly about making life easier for Conservatives who are serial cheaters in federal general elections."

Conservative MPs in the House of Commons later denied the unanimous consent needed to send the bill straight to committee.

But Harper dismissed NDP "conspiracy theories" about the bill.

"Many of these reforms are long overdue," he told the Commons.

"They will sharpen law enforcement, strengthen the reach of law enforcement personnel and correct many of the deficiencies which are well documented in the review of the last election."

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