Inside Politics

Elections Commissioner won't investigate US political consultant for hitting the 2011 campaign hustings with two Conservative candidates

So, remember how I was briefly - and not particularly quietly - driven mad earlier this spring while attempting to determine, once and for all, if it was legal for American political tourists -- specifically, staffers with US-based election consulting firms looking to drum up business in Canada -- to hit the election hustings on behalf of Canadian candidates?

For those who missed that journey into labyrinth of election law, you can read all about it here and here, but to make a very long and exquisitely frustrating shaggy dog story short, the eventual answer was that no one, including Elections Canada, seemed to know for sure.

Well, it turns out that an as yet identified someone went a step further, and filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Commissioner of Elections (OCE), in which he or she alleged that Matthew Parker, the CEO of US-based political consulting firm Front Porch Strategies may have violated the existing Canada Elections Act prohibition against "inducement" of voters by "foreigners" during a brief spurt of canvassing -- by phone and door-to-door -- on behalf of Conservative candidates Julian Fantino and Rick Dykstra during the last federal election. 
Earlier today, Democracy Watch released the OEC response on behalf of the still anonymous complainant, in which the commissioner concluded that it would not serve the public interest to pursue the matter further.

Unpersuaded, it seems, by the "internet information" provided in support of the claim -- online photos of Parker toiling in a phone bank at Fantino HQ, and a subsequent tweet in which he stated that he was "knocking on doors" with Dykstra in St. Catharine's -- the OCE concluded that the contested activity "was of very limited duration, and suggests that the purpose of the individuals' presence in Canada may have been partly or primarily to promote their business interests."

(Dykstra's 2011 election expense return lists a $947.90 payment to Front Porch for "miscellaneous services." There is no record of any payment to the firm by the Fantino campaign.)

In addition, it notes that "some of the relevant information or persons are not within Canada," which could make it difficult to "successfully investigate and enforce."

Finally - and perhaps most crucially - there is "no basis to believe that any elector was actually induced or affected in their voting behaviour" by the contested activity.

Not surprisingly, Democracy Watch is unimpressed with the decision not to investigate the matter, which it describes as "legally incorrect" and overly narrow in its interpretation of the law, and warns that it "indicates clearly that the Commissioner will likely never prosecute a foreigner for illegal influence of voters in Canadian federal elections."

Then again, as I pointed out in this post on the somewhat murky origins of the provision in question, it remains very much unclear whether Parliament -- or, at least, the parliamentarians who gave the current Act its most recent thorough legislative airing out in 1999 -- ever intended to declare the campaign trail off-limits to foreigners -- and don't even get me started on the seemingly infinite interpretations of the word "inducement," which is not defined in the Act.

In any case, should our current crop of politicians want to tighten the rules to keep out foreign electoral interlopers, it would seem easy enough to amend the law to make it crystal clear what is, and isn't, permitted. Until then, however, one can hardly fault the elections commissioner from declining to wade into the fray.

Here's the full text of the response:

This is in response to your complaint to Elections Canada in which you describe internet information indicating that two individuals associated with a business called Front Porch Strategies engaged in canvassing for one or more candidates in the May, 2011 federal general election.  Your complaint alleges a contravention of section 331 of the Canada Elections Act.

Thank you for bringing this matter to the attention of the Commissioner.

Offences related to influencing electors' voting decisions are difficult to successfully investigate and enforce.  In this case, an additional factor is that some of the relevant information or persons are not within Canada.  These considerations affect the Commissioner's assessment of your information and the public interest in taking enforcement action.

The information described in your complaint, found on internet sites or news stories, indicates that the activity complained of was of very limited duration, and suggests that the purpose of the individuals' presence in Canada may have been partly or primarily to promote their business interests.  No complaint to this office provided a basis to believe that any elector was actually induced or affected in their voting behaviour due to the activity complained of.

It is the Commissioner's view that, taking into account these considerations, it is not in the public interest to pursue this matter.

Note: As submitted to, and released by Democracy Watch, the original complaint refers only to Parker, but throughout its response, the OEC uses the plural. For the record, there were, indeed, two Front Porch staffers on the ground in Canada -- Parker and his partner, P.J Wenzel -- but for reasons known only to the anonymous complainant, only one was named in the initial filing.

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