POLITICS

Governing NDP in Manitoba broke rules in leadup to election: commissioner

05/02/2012 11:22 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - Manitoba's governing New Democrats have been found guilty of violating an election law, but will suffer no consequences.

The NDP was wrong to organize a media tour of a new birthing centre in south Winnipeg last August, just days before launching the provincial election campaign, Commissioner of Elections Bill Bowles wrote in a report made public Wednesday.

"The other parties running candidates in the election did not have access to government staffers to arrange their media events, nor did they have the ability to use the birth centre to stage a media event," Bowles wrote.

"Those uses of government resources are, in my view, what section 56 (of the Elections Finances Act) was intended to prevent."

The law prohibits any government advertising, except in cases of emergencies, during the 90-day period prior to election day, which was held Oct. 4, 2011 under the province's fixed election-date law.

On Aug. 30, two media outlets were offered a tour of a community birth centre in south Winnipeg. The centre, which gives women an alternative to hospitals as a place to have their babies, had been announced more than a year earlier and was nearing completion.

On the tour, and appearing in newspaper photographs the following day, were Health Minister Theresa Oswald and Education Minister Nancy Allan. The Opposition Progressive Conservatives filed a complaint with the elections commissioner accusing the NDP of using government resources for what amounted to a campaign-style event.

Bowles ruled the NDP's violation was inadvertent, but clearly used government resources.

"The chain of events leading to the media presence on the tour also includes Oswald's staff. I understand these people to be government employees who work for the Department of Health. They were part of the department's resources," Bowles wrote.

The NDP did not think it had broken any rules, Bowles added, because the birth centre had been previously announced.

"People within the government understood that the section (of law) applied only to new government programs, not ones which had been announced before the 90-day period.

"I don't agree with that interpretation."

The law contains no specific penalties for violations of that section. It states that the complainant — in this case, the Tories — can apply to a Court of Queen's Bench judge who can "award costs for or against any party to the hearing."

Premier Greg Selinger said his government accepts "full responsibility" for the breach, but no one will be punished.

"No, the commissioner himself did not believe it was an intentional act to violate the legislation, but it's a clarification and we accept the clarification," Selinger told reporters.

"The consequences are that it's in the public domain and the public knows what has gone wrong."

Oswald apologized for the violation, and said she did not know at the time she was running afoul of the law.

"I accept the fact that he's saying I made a mistake ... and I apologize for that."

The opposition demanded someone pay a price.

"When his own minister has been found guilty of breaking the law, Greg Selinger has an obligation to take action to make sure there's a message sent," Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said.

"There's a range of options available from standing up and apologizing to making changes to cabinet. He needs to decide what's appropriate."