Third-party ballot activities under scrutiny

OTTAWA — The number of complaints about third-party activities during the last federal election jumped almost nine-fold over the previous one, prompting the elections commissioner to suggest an update of the rules.

A spokeswoman for Yves Cote, the commissioner of Canada Elections, told The Canadian Press there were 105 complaints related to third-party activities in the 2015 campaign.

After the 2011 ballot, the number of complaints was just 12.

The latest statistics come as another complaint is filed by Alberta Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who alleges in a letter this month to Cote that in 2015 the U.S.-based Tides Foundation donated nearly $700,000 to eight organizations that registered as third parties for the 2015 campaign.

Cooper doesn’t know when in 2015 the donations were received, which is potentially the critical element to his complaint, because the law only prohibits foreign donations to registered third parties six months before the campaign begins.

Cooper however said the timing shouldn’t matter because Canada Elections Act also prohibits non-residents from doing anything to induce a Canadian to vote for or against a person or party.

“Foreign influence is a serious issue,” he said. “Canadians deserve elections that are free from foreign interference and influence.”

To date Cote hasn’t laid any charges from any of the complaints about third parties.

In an appearance at a Senate committee last month, Cote said he thinks it’s time Parliament takes a look at the rules for third parties, noting they haven’t changed in 17 years.

The number of third parties that registered more than doubled between 2011 and 2015, to 114 from 55.

The Canada Elections Act only applies to third parties with regard to advertising activities. Third parties, including unions and corporations barred from donating directly to political parties, can do as much direct calling, door-knocking and polling as they like.

Concerns about foreign influence during an election are high after the U.S. election and the investigation into alleged Russian interference to help Donald Trump win. The Canadian government has asked the Communications Security Establishment to look at whether the 2019 federal election is vulnerable to outside influence, particularly through cybercrimes such as hacking.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said in a statement Tuesday the government plans to review the spending limits placed on political parties and third parties during an election, as well as introduce new spending limits for advertising between elections. She did not specifically mention whether the review will look at the scope of third parties, or whether the Canada Elections Act laws for third parties should be extended to activities other than advertising.

Jessica Clogg, executive director at West Coast Environmental Law, called Cooper’s complaint “one more poorly informed witch hunt designed to undermine the work that charities and non-profits do on behalf of Canadians.”

She said the West Coast Environmental Law Association and the West Coast Environmental Law Research Foundation registered under third-party provisions only to be able to continue to take positions on environmental law issues during the campaign period, and never supported or opposed any particular candidate or party. All advertising done during the writ period was paid for by Canadian donors, she said. The Tides Foundation donations the two bodies received were unrelated to elections work entirely.

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said in a written statement that Greenpeace — which also received Tides Foundation money — spent just $3,000 on election-related advertising, and all of it came from Canadians.

Conservative Senator Linda Frum intends to introduce her own legislation to ban Canadian organizations from accepting foreign donations to use for political activities within Canada. A phone call to her office Tuesday was not returned.

— Follow @mrabson on Twitter

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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