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Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, seen here, said the Manning Centre’s decision to withhold donor names runs counter to the spirit of the law.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley says the next federal government must close a gap in the law that allowed the Manning Centre to raise money and then pass it along to third-party groups without disclosing the source of those donations.

Mr. Kingsley, who oversaw Canada’s elections when spending limits and disclosure rules were imposed on third-party groups more than a decade ago, said the Manning Centre’s decision to withhold the names of its donors, whose money it then distributed to a network of anti-Liberal groups, runs counter to the spirit of the law.

“If significant contributions can be made and the donors are not known, then Canadians are lacking that piece of knowledge, which the legislation was supposed to provide to them," Mr. Kingsley said in an interview Wednesday.

“It is not illegal, obviously, but what it means is that after this election is over, we will have to reopen the Canada Elections Act – whoever’s elected, if they’re intent on keeping up the spirit of the statute and making sure that that does not occur.”

The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that the Manning Centre put out a fundraising call seeking donations for third-party advertising ahead of this year’s election campaign. The Calgary-based conservative think tank then used that money to help fund more than $300,000 of contributions to a network of groups, including Canada Strong and Proud, and Québec Fier (Quebec Proud).

The Manning Centre, which argues its political fundraising is necessary to compete with well-funded anti-Conservative groups, said it does not intend to reveal the names of its donors. President Troy Lanigan did not respond to a request for additional comment on Wednesday.

Another third-party group, the Canada Growth Council, which is running anti-Liberal ads, also accepted a donation from an outside organization that had conducted its own fundraising. The council, which is run by several people connected to the Saskatchewan Party, recorded a $50,000 donation from Shaping Canada’s Future.

Shaping Canada’s Future, which has not registered as a third party with Elections Canada, ran TV attack ads against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during the NBA Finals – before spending and disclosure rules kicked in on June 30. Doug Nelson, the group’s lone corporate director, confirmed the $50,000 it gave to the Canada Growth Council came from its own fundraising efforts but declined to provide details.

“Our donors know what we’re going to use our money for in concept, and that’s what we do,” Mr. Nelson said in an interview.

“We don’t comment on our donors, and we don’t really want to comment on how we utilize our funds.”

Mr. Nelson was also involved with Shaping Alberta’s Future, a third-party group that supported now-Premier Jason Kenney in that province’s election this past spring.

Canada Growth Council spokesman Derek Robinson said in an e-mailed statement that the group discloses all of the information that Elections Canada requires.

“Canada Growth Council endeavours to fully comply with all the requirements of the Canada Elections Act,” the statement said.

Mr. Kingsley was chief electoral officer when spending limits were first imposed on third-party groups in the early 2000s. He testified at a lawsuit that saw Stephen Harper, then head of the National Citizens Coalition, unsuccessfully challenge those spending limits.

He said the system only works when the public can see the original source of the money.

“Yes, you can be a third party," Mr. Kingsley said. “Just tell us who contributed so that we know, individually, who contributed to an effort by a third party to have an impact on an election.”

The rules have been revised multiple times in the past decade. The latest changes in place for this campaign extended limits and disclosure requirements into a pre-election period that began on June 30. Third parties faced a spending limit of about $1-million in that prewrit period and another limit of $511,700 during the campaign.

Third parties are also forbidden from collaborating with political parties, and they can’t work together, or split into multiple organizations, to circumvent the spending caps.

Mr. Trudeau, whose government wrote the current election law, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer were both asked about the Manning Centre donations on Wednesday, but neither committed to changing the law.

Mr. Trudeau attempted to tie the third-party ads funded by the Manning Centre back to the Conservatives.

“We are, I think all of us as Canadians, a little saddened to see the polarizing negative nature of the campaign being run by some of our opponents, which is directly imported from the challenging electoral situations we see in fellow democracies around the world,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Scheer told reporters that his party has called for changes to tighten the rules, citing the risk of foreign money entering Canadian elections.

“I expect every organization in Canada to live up to the law, to live up to the laws that exist to ensure that Canadians have transparency,” he said.

With reports from Michelle Zilio in Montreal and Kristy Kirkup in Essex, Ont.

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