Manitoba pre-election blackout will start Wednesday

Manitoba will trigger its pre-election blackout on Wednesday, according to an internal email sent by the province to civil servants.

Start date for restrictions signals election is coming soon

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has hinted at a fall election, flouting the fixed date of Oct. 6, 2020. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba will trigger its pre-election blackout on Wednesday, according to an internal email sent by the province to civil servants Monday.

The start date for the restrictions on government advertising and publishing signal the election is coming soon, although the email doesn't specify a date.

Traditionally in Manitoba, the blackout begins 90 days before the fixed election date, as per the province's Elections Financing Act. The law is intended to prevent governments from using provincial resources for partisan campaigning.

The restrictions taking effect Wednesday aren't part of the Elections Financing Act, which only provides guidance for fixed-date elections. Instead, they're part of a new policy brought in by the government, apparently as part of its plan to flout the fixed date in favour of an earlier election.

Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly indicated his government won't abide by the fixed date of Oct. 6, 2020, hinting at an election in the fall. He's pledged to follow the "spirit [and] intent" of the blackout law with his own restrictions on advertising.

If the government sticks to the Elections Financing Act's 90-day rule, that would put the coming election on Tuesday, Sept. 10.

'Effectively launch(ing) an election campaign': NDP

Screenshots of the internal email alerting civil servants of the restrictions were sent to CBC by the Manitoba NDP.

The first line of the email said it was a message to public servants from Fred Meier, clerk of the province's executive council and cabinet secretary for the Progressive Conservative government.

On Monday, Meier told CBC the government's policy is "very similar" to the province's Elections Financing Act.

The policy will be in place until the writ is officially dropped, Meier said, at which point the Act will take effect.

"[The policy] really speaks about, essentially, restrictions on advertising and publishing during the period of time that the policy's in place," Meier said. "[It] essentially curtails most of the advertising publication during that period of time, including announcements and different aspects such as that."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew slammed the premier for the timing of the email, which comes after Pallister embarked on a trip to Europe for meetings and time off.

"It's disappointing that, on the same day a damning report on health-care cuts is released, the premier would force his civil servant to effectively launch an election campaign while he vacations in France," Kinew said in an emailed statement.

"This election is about putting a stop to Pallister's health-care cuts and ER closures and the NDP intends fight hard for Manitobans' No. 1 priority."

Exceptions for public health, safety

The premier has said he'll make himself available to media roughly once a week under the blackout restrictions.

Meier said governing politicians are permitted to speak to media and answer questions during blackouts, as long as they're not using government resources to do so.

The rules also allow for advertising or publishing related to public health or safety, such as notices about E. coli at a beach or West Nile virus. Those communications would be reviewed before being sent out, he said.

The restrictions apply to Crown corporations as well, Meier added. Crown corporations are permitted to continue any existing advertising campaigns, but have to hold back any planned new ones until after the election.

With files from Ian Froese and The Canadian Press