Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Federal Cabinet Minister's Overspending Prompts Calls for Tougher Penalties

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Federal Cabinet Minister's Overspending Prompts Calls for Tougher Penalties

Article excerpt

Toughen campaign spending penalties: watchdog


ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Penalties and enforcement should be toughened up to deter illegal overspending by candidates in federal elections, say Democracy Watch and other political observers.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue has blamed rookie mistakes and says he's working with Elections Canada after spending thousands of dollars more than the legal limit in the 2011 campaign.

An Elections Canada review showed Penashue spent $4,000 over his limit of just under $84,500 before CBC News cited documents alleging he also took thousands of dollars in free flights around his far-flung Labrador riding.

Opposition MPs and Todd Russell, the former Liberal MP who lost to Penashue by just 79 votes, have demanded he resign for a byelection.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has deflected such pressure. He told the House of Commons last week that mistakes made were the fault of Penashue's former official agent and campaign manager, Reg Bowers.

Tyler Sommers of the independent advocacy group Democracy Watch is calling for a full Elections Canada investigation but says it doesn't help that penalties for candidates who overspend are "a joke."

A major failing is that even when penalties are tough enough, "there's no requirement that they actually use it," he said in an interview.

"So what we've been calling for, for some time, is for watchdogs at Elections Canada and others to be given the power to levy severe penalties against individuals who violate the law, and be required to actually use that.

"Take out the discretionary aspects and ensure candidates care enough about the rules that they familiarize themselves and that they stay on the right side."

A broader problem is the lack of public reporting by Elections Canada about action taken on various complaints that could have covered any range of issues, Sommers said.

"We looked into the last 15 years and we found that there were over 3,000 complaints and very little information about what Elections Canada has actually done with those complaints. They don't release the results of their investigations to the Canadian public, so we have virtually no way of knowing whether or not Elections Canada is ensuring that our elections are free and fair. …

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