Proposed law on costing of election promises would kill ads by violators

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Proposed law on costing of election promises would kill ads by violators

The Liberal government is rebooting a law on the costing of campaign promises with a new twist.  

Under the legislation introduced Wednesday, a political party that doesn't file an estimate of the costs of its commitments could lose the right to advertise for the rest of the election campaign.

"We wanted to make sure now that there are teeth in this bill, so that every party is held to the same standard," said cabinet minister Victor Boudreau, who's been overseeing electoral reform for the government.

In 2015, the Liberals repealed legislation passed by the previous Progressive Conservative government requiring the costing of promises. The Liberals called it and other PC laws on fiscal transparency "gimmicky."

Now, 18 months from the next election, the Liberals are embracing the idea.

2 key differences

The law would require parties to file public declarations with estimates of what their election platforms would cost taxpayers, or how much revenue they'd bring in.

That's similar to the PC law, but the Liberal version has two key differences.

It doesn't require an independent auditor or accountant to review the promises.

And it would penalize a party that doesn't comply by revoking its ability to advertise its leader, candidates, and platform during the campaign.

The PC version only included penalties after the election was over. A party that didn't cost its promises could lose its public subsidy.

A day's warning

But the Liberal version says Elections New Brunswick will give a party 24 hours' notice that it had not followed the law or that its disclosure statement was incomplete. After that, the party would be banned from advertising.

Asked if parties would have to take down lawn signs and billboards on public street corners, Boudreau said the advertising ban would be applied "within reason."

And he said he was "assuming that if the proper process was followed" and a party eventually filed a declaration, "the ban would be lifted" before election day.

But the legislation doesn't say that.

It states simply that a party that broke the rules would be "prohibited from advertising during the remainder of the election period and shall be subject to an administrative penalty established by regulation.

Elections NB role challenged

PC Leader Blaine Higgs, who introduced the Tory law in 2014, said he welcomed the revival of the costing requirement.

But he said the Liberals were going too far in giving Elections New Brunswick, an independent agency, the power to ban a party's advertising.

He said he consulted the agency in 2014 and officials at the time were reluctant to apply penalties while a campaign was going on.

"Elections New Brunswick made it clear to us at the time that that was not a function that they could carry out," Higgs said.

"They said, 'We cannot participate. That's not our role.'"

Coon finds bill goes too far

Green Party Leader David Coon agreed the penalties in the bill go too far and might influence voters' decisions.

"Interfering with the actual democratic process during the election campaign is not the way to go, which is what that would do," he said.

Boudreau cast doubt on the value of the mandatory costing declarations when he argued that governments can't be held to them.

In recent months, Premier Brian Gallant has criticized journalists for comparing some of his government's spending to the costing declaration the Liberals filed in the 2014 election.

Boudreau said Wednesday the declarations are only an estimate.

"Obviously, [parties] can cost it to the best of their ability at that time," he said. "Obviously, year over year, costs change. Things get maybe more complicated than you originally thought they were. … Every party has to do the best they can."