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Will Elections Manitoba Play Fair?

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As the 2016 provincial election approaches, ensuring a proper campaign and vote rests with Elections Manitoba. While the provincial agency is supposed to apply electoral law and further transparency based on its political neutrality and independence from government, will it?

My concern begins with the hiring and managing of the Chief Electoral Officer. While overseen by the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Legislative Affairs, that committee is dominated by the NDP. Both its Chair and Vice-Chair are NDP MLAs and committee meetings are seldom and short.

Richard Balasko, who served as Chief Electoral Officer from 1990 to 2010, recently co-edited a guide to fair elections entitled The Informed Citizen’s’ Guide to Elections. Balasko retired in 2010 under a cloud of suspicion following a very delayed public discovery of 1999 NDP election misdeeds. In my view, under Balasko’s leadership Elections Manitoba effectively allowed NDP misdeeds to be largely hidden.

Before the 2003 provincial election, Elections Manitoba’s actions kept 1999 NDP campaign misdeeds unrecognized. Coincidentally, Balasko’s salary leaped from $109,000 to $148,000. In 2010, just ahead of the 2011 election, media attention finally focused on the NDP’s misdeeds of 1999. Despite being grilled by opposition members and the media, Balasko contained the scandal by being vague and elusive. And, coincidentally, while civil servants anticipated a salary freeze Balasko’s compensation seemingly jumped by $60,000 to $224,000.

The Toronto Sun reported on what was a very under-reported Manitoba scandal: “In 1999, the NDP claimed services of union members who worked on the campaigns of 13 candidates as a reimbursable expense rather than non-reimbursable donations in kind … triggering a $76,000 grant the party wasn’t entitled to. At least one NDP official agent said someone slipped … deliberately.” Greg Selinger’s return was one of the falsified returns.

The fact is that Elections Manitoba, under the direction of Balasko, allowed major NDP malfeasance not to be properly flagged. While Balasko laid charges against opposition candidates for very minor transgressions, he ignored major transgressions of the NDP government. It took four years before Elections Manitoba even reported publicly on the NDP’s falsified 1999 return, and then the agency’s report was incomplete, vague and misleading. Cynics might think Elections Manitoba served as a foot soldier of the NDP.

The electorate re-elected the NDP in 2003, 2007 and 2011, largely unaware of the breaches of election law the NDP committed in the 1999 provincial election. While the audit that followed the 1999 election confirmed NDP’s illegal actions, Balasko’s agency played down the significance of the misdeeds. Charges should have been laid.

Elections Manitoba staff had even altered NDP agents’ returns; neither the candidates nor their official agents signed those amended returns. Subsequently, the Elections Manitoba staffer that signed off on the alterations was promoted. The actions of the NDP and Elections Manitoba were worse than simply being wrong. Elections Manitoba’s actions appear biased.

Should or can the public be confident that Elections Manitoba will hold the NDP to the same standard as the other parties in the upcoming April 2016 election? It takes more to be independent than just saying you are.

The governance of Elections remains seriously flawed. And, over a few years, its newest Chief Electoral Officer has seen her salary doubled.

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