Baloney Meter: Is Elections Canada biased in favour of Liberals, as Tory claims?

Baloney Meter: Is Elections Canada biased in favour of Liberals, as Tory claims?

OTTAWA —  "Hard to trust the Liberal lapdogs at Elections Canada, who let Liberals-SNC off the $100K donation scam and has paid influencers to intervene in the campaign." — Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, Twitter post, June 10, 2019.

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Pierre Poilievre has had Canada's elections agency in his crosshairs for years.

As a backbencher in Stephen Harper's Conservative government, the Ottawa MP repeatedly derided Elections Canada's contention that the Conservative party illegally transferred money to local riding campaigns to pay for national ads during the 2006 election — the so-called "in-and-out" scheme that allowed the party to exceed its spending limit by more than $1 million. The Conservatives eventually agreed to a plea deal, admitted to having broken the law and paid the maximum fine of $50,000.

In 2014, as democratic reform minister, Poilievre introduced the Fair Elections Act, which Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer at the time, feared would disenfranchise tens of thousands of Canadians. Poilievre accused Elections Canada of bias, arguing that the "referee shouldn't be wearing a team jersey." And he dismissed Mayrand's criticisms as evidence that "he wants more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.”

Now, he's going after Elections Canada again for not prosecuting Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin for a scheme to circumvent the ban on corporate donations to political parties, resulting in about $110,000 in illegal donations to federal Liberals and another $8,000 to the Conservatives from 2004 to 2009.

"Elections Canada will never enforce the law on Liberals," Poilievre tweeted May 29.

He also objects to the agency's plan to hire 13 social-media "influencers" — well-known athletes, musicians, TV personalities and YouTube celebrities — to encourage young people to vote in this fall's election. Conservatives argue this is an attempt to "rig" the election for the Liberals, who are more likely to benefit from an increase in youth voters than the Tories, and that the influencers will inevitably betray their own political bias.

So, is there a basis for Poilievre's accusation that Elections Canada is a lapdog for the governing Liberals?

The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of "no baloney" to "full of baloney" (complete methodology below).

Spoiler alert: This one earns a ranking of "Full of baloney."

THE FACTS

In 2016, Yves Cote, the commissioner of Canada elections, struck a compliance agreement with SNC-Lavalin, in which the company admitted that employees were encouraged to make political donations and were reimbursed by the company by way of false refunds for personal expenses or bonuses. The company agreed to abide by conditions set by the commissioner to ensure no repeat violations.

No charges were laid against the company itself but one former executive, Normand Morin, was charged with five counts of violating political financing laws. Last November, Morin pleaded guilty to two of the five charges and was fined $2,000; the other charges were dropped.

In signing off on the agreement, Cote noted that none of those involved were still employed by SNC-Lavalin, and that new management had taken steps to prevent a recurrence and had co-operated with his office in tracking and recovering the illegal contributions.

Conservatives compared the slap on the wrist for SNC-Lavalin to the punishment meted out to one of their former MPs, Dean Del Mastro, who was convicted in 2014 of exceeding his 2008 campaign spending limit and filing a false return to cover it up. Del Mastro was sentenced to one month in jail, four months of house arrest and 18 months of probation.

In levelling his charge that Liberal stooges are letting SNC off the hook, Poilievre conflates Elections Canada, which administers election laws and conducts federal elections, with the commissioner of elections, who enforces the laws and investigates suspected violations. Even though the law stipulates that the commissioner operates independently of the electoral officer, Poilievre maintains they are effectively one and the same because the commissioner's office is housed under the auspices of the chief electoral officer.

However, at the time the compliance agreement was struck, the commissioner was actually under the independent director of public prosecutions — moved there by Fair Elections Act to ensure what Poilievre himself called "real independence." The Trudeau government moved the commissioner's office back to Elections Canada in April this year.

In a statement issued last month, Cote said that at no time since he was appointed commissioner in 2012 has any elected official, political staffer or public servant attempted to influence or interfere with any of his enforcement or compliance decisions.

"And I want to make it clear that if this ever happened, I would promptly and publicly denounce it," he said.

While the law forbids him from going into details of the investigation, Cote said that a decision to enter into a compliance agreement rather than prosecute depends on the strength of the evidence gathered and whether it would meet "the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

He also noted that at the time the agreement was struck with SNC, he did not have the power to seek court orders to compel witness testimony — something he and his predecessors have long asked for and which Poilievre specifically refused to include in the Fair Elections Act. The Trudeau government included that power in its own election-law reform package but that only went into effect in April.

On the social media influencers, Elections Canada says it has ensured they have no partisan affiliation; their names will be released later this month. All 13 have been required to sign agreements vowing to remain politically neutral in their public comments during the campaign and for one year after.

The Fair Elections Act banned Elections Canada from promoting voter participation, allowing the agency only to educate Canadians about how, where and when to cast ballots. The current Liberal government reinstated Elections Canada's role in encouraging groups with typically low voter turnout, such as youth and Indigenous Peoples, to take part in elections.

Whether such promotional efforts are effective is debatable. Voter turnout among such groups has remained well below average for decades, despite past efforts by Elections Canada.  Ironically, during the 2015 campaign when the agency was barred from such vote promotion efforts, a spike in youth voter turnout (up 18 points to 57 per cent) and among those living on reserve (up 14 points to 61.5 per cent) is credited with helping the Liberals win.

THE EXPERTS

William Corbett, Cote's predecessor, was the commissioner of elections whose office investigated the Del Mastro affair, the in-and-out scandal and the robocall scandal, which led to one junior Conservative campaign worker being convicted of deliberately misinforming electors in Guelph, Ont., about the locations of their polling stations. All three cases were prosecuted.

Cote, who took over the role in 2012, seems inclined to pursue fewer prosecutions in general, Corbett said.

"That's his choice," Corbett said in an interview, adding that as long Cote is applying his approach to compliance agreements even-handedly, "you can't fault him for that."

Those with whom Cote has struck compliance agreements include Poilievre himself, who wore a golf shirt with a conspicuous Conservative party logo at a 2015 event to announce retroactive child-benefit payments. Cote found that constituted an illegal government donation worth about $4,800 to the party.

Over the years, Corbett said, he told various parliamentary committees that "frankly, we'd rather not prosecute and if someone comes forward and says, 'All right, I screwed up' ... that's a better approach towards life."

In the Del Mastro case, the former MP insists he did nothing wrong. An admission of guilt is a precondition for a compliance agreement, Corbett noted.

While he says the SNC-Lavalin case "sounds serious enough to have gone further" than a compliance agreement, "there's all kinds of reasons why you don't" — some of which Cote appears to have been signalling in his statement last month. His reference to not having the power to compel witness testimony, "that's telling you that he wasn't getting any co-operation" from the people allegedly involved in the scam, said Corbett.

In his own experience, Corbett said there were "lots of cases where it was a tooth extraction process" to pry testimony out of witnesses. That was true in the robocall case, in which it was widely suspected that more senior Conservatives were involved but they refused to be questioned and ultimately were not charged.

THE VERDICT

Poilievre is of course entitled to disagree with Elections Canada and the decisions of the elections commissioner. But despite a long track record of assailing the agency's objectivity, he has not produced any hard evidence to support his claim of bias. Meanwhile, the facts as they stand — coupled with the agency's strenuous denials — do not support any contention that the agency is engaged in doing the bidding of the Liberals. The fact that the decision on SNC-Lavalin was made while the commissioner was under the authority of the director of public prosecutions — an arrangement Poilievre himself created to guarantee what he called "real independence" — suggests the opposite.

METHODOLOGY

No baloney — the statement is completely accurate.

A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.

Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.

A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.

Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate.

SOURCES

https://www.cef-cce.ca/content.asp?section=nwsrm&dir=pre-com&document=may0219&lang=e

https://www.cef-cce.ca/content.asp?section=agr&document=aug3016&lang=e

https://www.cef-cce.ca/content.asp?section=abo&dir=bul&document=index&lang=e

https://www.cef-cce.ca/content.asp?section=agr&document=jul0417&lang=e

https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/eval/pes2015/vtsa&document=table1&lang=e

https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/eval/pes2015/ovt&document=index&lang=e

Joan Bryden , The Canadian Press