Manitoba elections commissioner dismisses Tory complaint about union ad campaign

WINNIPEG — Manitoba's commissioner of elections has dismissed a complaint from the Progressive Conservative party that alleged a union broke the limit on third-party spending during last year's provincial election.

Bill Bowles said the billboard and bus shelter ads that criticized Premier Brian Pallister cost Unifor $18,843 — well under the $25,000 limit set by the Election Financing Act.

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"In coming to his conclusion the investigator was provided, and examined, details of those expenses," Bowles wrote in a four-page ruling obtained by The Canadian Press on Wednesday. Bowles traditionally does not speak publicly about his reports and turned down a request for comment.

The accusation was made last August by cabinet minister Kelvin Goertzen after the ads started popping up around Winnipeg. The ads featured the premier's face and included the phrase "Don't let Pallister wreck health care."

Goertzen said the ad campaign seemed clearly expensive, although his accusation was made just 11 days into the 29-day election campaign.

Bowles's report found the ads did not remain up for the entire campaign period.

The lawyers who filed the formal complaint on behalf of the Tories also included three other accusations against Unifor, including one that argued the union was acting in collusion with the Manitoba Federation of Labour to get around the spending limit by distributing pamphlets with similar language.

Bowles dismissed all of the Progressive Conservative party accusations.

Unifor welcomed the ruling.

"We've always said (the complaint) was a baseless attempt to smear one of Brian Pallister's most effective critics," said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director.

"We made sure that we properly … stayed under the legislated caps."

The Progressive Conservatives said they were disappointed by the ruling.

"The findings, while technically correct, do not represent the spirit of the legislation that attempts to reduce the influence of third-party advertisers," George Orle, lawyer for the Tory election campaign, said in a written statement.

Orle also said Unifor was on track to exceed the spending limit before the Tories filed their complaint part way through the campaign.

"By then, Unifor had spent a substantial amount of their limit and showed no tendency to slow it down failing the filing of the complaint."

The Tories won the election to form a second consecutive majority government with 36 of the 57 legislature seats.

While unions, business groups and third parties are limited to $25,000 in spending during a campaign, political parties are allowed a much higher amount based on a formula that includes the number of registered voters. For last year's election, that limit was just over $1.9 million.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020.

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