Elections officials have determined the Merit Contractors Association of Manitoba violated election laws by spending more than $17,000 on election advertising without proper registration.
“In my view, Merit had an obligation to register as a third party,” wrote Elections Commissioner Bill Bowles in his decision. “Its failure to do so was a breach of the Election Financing Act. The advertisements
purchased were all, in my opinion, election communications.”
Bowles noted many of the advertisements made at least indirect reference to the government and the pending election and suggested how people should vote during the 2019 election. He said all of the ads made reference to an issue associated with the PC Party.
One of the key issues the Merit ads focused on was the enactment of legislation that would permit open shop contractors to bid on government work. During the previous session of the Manitoba Legislature, the incumbent Progressive Conservative government introduced a bill that would have allowed non-union employers to bid and work on public projects.
The bill was opposed by the NDP and was not passed prior to the 2019 election.
Many of the ads included the tagline: “This September, Support Open Tendering.”
Bowles learned of the issue when the Manitoba Building Trades submitted a complaint. He does not believe further action should be taken and stated there is no reason to believe Merit broke the law intentionally.
“I accept that the breach was based on a good-faith interpretation of the relevant law,” wrote Bowles. “In my opinion, it would not be in the public interest for me to pursue this matter further.”
He added had Merit properly registered, its level of election advertising spending would have been fine. He said Merit must now register retroactively and fulfill any reporting requirements.
Yvette Milner, Merit Manitoba president, stated the group has accepted the commissioner’s decision and will not appeal.
The Manitoba Building Trades stated they agree with the commissioner’s findings as well, but hoped more would be done.
“We appreciate the commissioner’s effort and follow up regarding this complaint, however we would have like to have seen more consequences brought against such an obvious violation of the law,” said Sudhir Sandhu, Manitoba Building Trades CEO. “A fine would have been appropriate, as well as some form of public disclosure of the violation.”
He added the Building Trades believe Election Financing Act rules for third parties are incredibly clear, simple and publicly available.
“For a group with a well-known track record of lobbying expertise, to claim that they didn’t know you had to register to advertise about election issues in the middle of an election is absurd,” he said. “That a very rich organization can spend a lot of money on advertising and then claim ignorance and get away with it sets a bad precedence for other groups who might think money can buy favourable legislation and that you can get away it.”
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