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."

Except for the most high profile cases, such as Elections Canada's drawn-out battle with the Conservative party over the so-called in-and-out scheme to fund advertising in the 2006 campaign, there is little public information on recent enforcement efforts.

Penalties for candidate overspending range from $1,000 to $5,000 in fines or three months to five years in jail, or both, depending on the seriousness of the offence.

"If there's wilful intent, which falls under illegal practices, then it's even more serious," said Diane Benson, a spokeswoman for Elections Canada.

Anyone convicted of an illegal practice may also be banned from election to the Commons for five years.

The agency does not discuss details of ongoing investigations.

Political scientist Nelson Wiseman, associate professor at the University of Toronto, said he doesn't buy excuses of inexperience or ignorance of the law.

In the Penashue case, Bowers apologized to Elections Canada for missing paperwork and lax reporting but then went on to be named last December by the federal government to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Wiseman said.

"The petroleum board lists his expertise as accounting in business. I mean, it's not as if the guy was a social worker or an egghead like me and isn't familiar with accounting principles."

Nor should Penashue be allowed to plead inexperience as a first-time federal candidate, Wiseman said.

"If you're so inexperienced, maybe you ought not to be in the cabinet."

Canada Elections Act penalties in most cases "seem to be minimal or nil," Wiseman added. "And whatever penalties there are, they're generally not enforced and Elections Canada goes out of its way to accommodate that stuff doesn't come out public and isn't enforced."

Penashue won the only Conservative victory in the province as the other six federal seats went to the Liberals and NDP.

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