09/15/2015 02:40 EDT | Updated 09/15/2015 06:59 EDT

Abusing 'Caretaker' Rules Bring 'No Real Consequences': Democracy Watch Co-Founder

Duff Conacher says that government rules, as they are worded now, “can be abused with no real consequences.”

Using taxpayer-funded resources to feed coal into the Conservative Party’s election machine violates the spirit of government "caretaker" rules, a political science professor says.

Stephen Harper’s party is using “all of the government resources that they can to further their election campaign,” University of Ottawa visiting professor and Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said in an interview with The Huffington Post Canada.

He pointed to a “24 Seven” video uploaded on Aug. 1 and its continued presence on the landing page of the Conservative government’s website as an example.

Screengrab of the landing page for Stephen Harper’s government website. A welcome message and the most-recent 24 Seven video is featured on the first landing page.

The Hill Times noted in a story about complaints from candidates that the video, which mashes clips from several of Harper’s speeches, could “easily be mistaken for any of the stump pitches” made by the Conservative leader and his candidates in recent weeks.

Watch the full video below:

“At this moment in our history, there is no better place in the world to live, to work and raise a family,” Harper says in a clip from an address he made to a Canada Day crowd in Ottawa. “No better place in the world than this country, Canada!”

Produced by staff in the Prime Minister’s Office to soften Harper’s reputation, the weekly “24 Seven” videos were paid for with taxpayers’ money. Their continued presence on government websites violates rules prohibiting the use of government resources as election material, some people — including opposition candidates — say.

“They’re just ignoring and breaking the rules with gaming the system — they don’t think they can win an election fair and square,” NDP candidate Charlie Angus told the The Hill Times’ Tim Naumetz.

Press Progress previously noted that the same “24 Seven” video, the last of the series released the evening before the election was called, also appeared on Harper’s page on the Conservative Party website before it was taken down three days into the campaign.

Messy government ‘caretaker’ rules

The main problem with the Privy Council Office’s government "caretaker" rules, Conacher said, is that they’re not being reinforced and have not been updated since fixed-date election legislation became law eight years ago.

Currently, they’re activated whenever an election has been called. Conacher argues that they should be enforced as early as four to six months before voting day — the third Monday in October every four years. The concern is timing and the release of materials that may be construed as party propaganda.

One example he used occurred, just days before the writ was officially dropped, when the federal government made $1.6 billion in new and recycled spending promises — in a 48-hour period.

“A lot of the spending announcements were about spending that happens in future fiscal years,” Conacher said about the windfall of fresh cash.

“That’s a campaign promise. It should be issued as a Conservative party campaign promise news release.”

Conacher also insisted that government rules, as they are worded now, “can be abused with no real consequences.”

But he pointed to one person who can have the authority to keep a government’s partisan advertising in check.

“That's why the auditor general has to be empowered, to (say) yes and no to this stuff four to six months before the election,” he said.

Fair campaigns according to the ‘rules of the law’

Earlier this year, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk voiced her concern about a law change that would require her to approve partisan ads. And at the federal level, Liberal MP David McGuinty also tabled a private member’s bill calling for the creation of a watchdog to curb the use of taxpayer’s money to pay for partisan government ads.

The “caretaker” rules in place today relegate the incumbent government to conducting only routine activities during election periods. It is expected to “exercise restraint in its actions,” according to guidelines.

But there’s a systemic conundrum: The rules are supposed to be enforced by the Privy Council Office — a key central agency to which appointments, and terminations, are decided by the prime minister.

After he emerged from Rideau Hall on Aug. 2 to announce the start of the 78-day election campaign, Harper cited “rules of law” to protect the integrity of the electoral process as the rationale for his early election call.

“I feel very strongly that if we’re going to begin our campaigns, if we’re going to run our campaigns, those campaigns need to be conducted under the rules of the law,” he said, emphasizing that funding should “come from the parties themselves,” not government, parliamentary, or taxpayer resources.

Voters will head to the polls Oct. 19.

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