The Federal Court of Appeal has ruled that Elections Canada was right to question the “in and out” election scheme run by the Conservative Party. What was the scheme about? To answer that question, recall the context.
The “scheme” (the court’s word) occurred toward the end of the 2006 election campaign that brought Stephen Harper to office. That election, you might remember, was a close-run thing until Christmas.
Paul Martin’s Liberals were supposed to cruise to an easy victory after he replaced Jean Chrétien, but his government had not impressed Canadians. More than anything else, the sponsorship “scandal” in Quebec took its toll on the Liberals there and elsewhere. The Conservatives piled on accusations of Liberal cronyism and outright illegality. A Conservative television ad showed a garbage truck, tying that image to the stench of corruption the party insisted pervaded Ottawa.
At the Christmas break, the Conservatives had momentum, but the Liberals remained competitive. At that point, then-RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli sent a letter to an NDP MP saying the force was investigating complaints of leaking budget material against the Liberal finance minister, Ralph Goodale, who was then campaigning for re-election. The MP, sniffing political advantage, leaked the letter. (Mr. Goodale’s conduct was later completely exonerated.)
The damage caused by the sponsorship affair and the RCMP probe, as polling studies later confirmed, crippled the Liberals’ re-election chances. The Conservatives couldn’t believe their good fortune. The new party – a fusion of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives – had experienced its own problems: Candidates couldn’t stick to the script, and a few kept yammering about abortion, capital punishment and other favourite social conservative issues the party leadership desperately wanted to avoid.
Yes, the Liberals were wounded, but they weren’t done. They were running their own nasty TV ads warning darkly of Mr. Harper’s hidden agenda. On TV and on platforms, the two parties were battling, ad for ad, charge for charge. But as the campaign wore on, the Conservatives were running out of money, or at least money they could spend under election financing rules. They needed every dollar they could find to buy more ads.
Under election financing laws, there are limits for national parties and for local candidates. The national party was approaching its spending limit. As the Federal Court of Appeal noted, “party officials invited Conservative candidates who had not reached their spending limit to contribute, with others in the region, to a pooled media regional buy.” If the national party could use local space for national purposes, then credit the spending to local ridings, it could buy more advertising time and better position itself in the final days of a close campaign.
Hence the “in and out” financing scheme. The national party “asked” local constituencies to pay into a collective media buy, so they used up their spending space. Since the ridings didn’t actually have the money, the national office would wire it to them, then ask for it back the same day. The ridings could then say they’d spent up to their limit, and head office could insist it hadn’t exceeded the party’s national limit.
The party believed it was within election law to put the local candidate’s name at the bottom of national ads, thereby showing the spending was local, not national. It was, as the appeal court said, a “scheme.” Now the director of public prosecutions has charged four Conservatives, including two senators, with having organized the scheme.
The Conservatives say they’ve now dropped “in and out” financing. Chances are the voters won’t care what happened in the 2006 election when, as seems apparent, desperate times drove the Conservatives to desperate measures.