Byelection 'blackout' anything but black and white

Provincial government officials often voice a very black-and-white interpretation of what they call "the election blackout": When reporters ask questions, they don't answer during a campaign, such as the current St. Boniface byelection.

Some information requests being denied, but officials have different takes on media ban

The lights stay on at the Manitoba Legislature at night, even when a byelection 'blackout' is on. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Provincial government officials often voice a very black-and-white interpretation of what they call "the election blackout": When reporters ask questions, they don't answer during a campaign, such as the current St. Boniface byelection.

But Elections Manitoba says there's no blanket ban on communications.

"There is no media blackout during a byelection," Elections Manitoba communication manager Alison Mitchell wrote in an email to CBC News. "There is a restriction on government advertising during a byelection."

The St. Boniface byelection was announced on June 19, which triggered those restrictions on government advertising until voters go to the polls on July 17.

But since the writ was dropped, reporters' questions have been parried by officials citing the blackout. A scheduled interview with Main Street Project for a feature story was cancelled on short notice. 

"I am so sorry to do this but we need to decline the interview today due to the byelection blackout. We fall under WRHA so the blackout applies to us. Thanks for understanding," said the Main Street Project spokesperson.

And then there was the question put to Manitoba Housing two weeks ago: When will the splash pad in Bridgwater Lakes be turned on?

The answer: "Discussions between Manitoba Housing and the City of Winnipeg related to the maintenance and operation of the fountain have concluded. Manitoba's Election Financing Act places a number of restrictions on government communications during a byelection period so we are unable to provide further details at this time."

Section 92 of the Election Financing Act states a government department or Crown agency "must not advertise or publish any information about its programs or activities."

Manitoba's health minister had no problem advertising and even celebrating the "blackout."

Mitchell, of Elections Manitoba, said she couldn't provide interpretation of the restrictions beyond what the law says.

She did say when it comes to civil servants answering reporters' questions, "that is at the discretion of the government department."

Glen Cassie, speaking on behalf of Communication Services Manitoba, the civil servants who take reporters' questions, said he believes they have provided some kind of answer to most if not all questions.

"There are limitations, of course, in the realm of future projects, but for basic facts and stats, we are operating as we always do," Cassie said.

Fred Meier, the clerk of the executive council — the government's cabinet — said "government must strike a balance."

Website updates and social media posts are forbidden, he said, but communications like "weekly tweets about beach conditions" are OK, as is "straightforward factual content about current, ongoing programs." 

What's not OK is commenting on projected plans or programs that have not been implemented.

"The intent of the Election Financing Act is to ensure that the government in power does not use the advantage of power and access to media in order to influence voters by promoting its agenda or programs," Meier said via email. 

Waiting for new wording

Elections Manitoba acknowledged the law can be hard to decipher and recommended new wording at the standing committee of legislative affairs in December 2016

"Our recommendation seeks to clarify and strengthen the provision on government advertising by including the words 'use of government finances or resources' in Section 92," said chief electoral officer Shipra Verma. 

"This would more clearly articulate the intent of the provision and could help address some of the challenges in interpretation."

The recommendation has not been adopted. 

'Politically convenient'

"It's politically convenient not to have to talk about topics that might be controversial and the subject of opposition criticism and might play into a negative environment at the time when the governing party is hoping to avoid an embarrassment in the byelection," said University of Manitoba professor emeritus Paul Thomas.

The rule banning advertising by the government in the run-up to elections ensures fairness, he said.

"The governing party shouldn't get the benefit of some good news from a government announcement while the other parties are trying to contest an election," Thomas said.

But limits on advertising should not equal a media blackout, he said.

"Ministers should still be available. Press officials and media representatives should still be available," Thomas said.

"You would think of a period of heightened political sensitivity, when people want to hear what's going on about government, is not the time for them to go into hiding."

NDP government ran afoul of law in 2011 election 

Former NDP health minister Theresa Oswald apologized after a 2011 media tour of the new birthing centre in St. Vital was found to have broken pre-election rules. 

Manitoba's elections commissioner said the NDP violated the law because they used government staff for the event. 

Friesen answers questions in Ottawa

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen was open to reporters' questions in Ottawa at the finance ministers meeting on Tuesday last week. 

Friesen appeared before cameras and microphones and proposed Manitoba Hydro as a solution to Canada's trade problems. 

"We need to think more seriously about an east-west energy corridor. Manitoba is in the midst of completing $20 billion in investments in hydroelectric dams, in transmission lines, conversion stations and tie-ins. This is a very significant investment. At the end of it we are having a hydroelectric utility that is 98 per cent green, 98 per cent renewable energy. We can help solve the problems of Western provinces."

When asked why the government was confident Friesen's statement complied with the Election Finance Act, David von Meyenfeldt, his press secretary, replied: 

"The minister was responding to a question from a journalist. That is permitted under the law."

The Election Financing Act

92. Restrictions on Government Advertising

(1) — Restrictions for general elections and by-elections

During the following periods, a government department or Crown agency must not advertise or publish any information about its programs or activities:

(a) in the last 90 days before election day and on election day, in the case of a fixed date election,

(b) in the election period, in the case of a by-election or a general election that is not a fixed date election.

(2) — Exceptions

Subsection (1) does not apply to an advertisement or a publication

(a) that is required by law,

(b) that is required at that time

(i) to solicit proposals or tenders for contracts or applications for employment with a government department or Crown agency, or

(ii) because it relates to important matters of public health or safety,

(c) that, in the case of a Crown agency, is in continuation of earlier advertisements or publications and is required at that time for ongoing programs of the agency, or

(d) that, during the election period of a by-election,

(i) is in continuation of earlier publications or advertisements and is required for ongoing programs of a government department, or

(ii) deals with a matter before the Assembly during the election period of a by-election, such as the throne speech, the budget, the introduction or passage of a bill or an order or resolution of the Assembly.