When New Brunswick’s local government elections happen this May, the province will still be without campaign finance rules for municipal races.
“In municipal elections there are currently no rules around contribution limits, spending limits,” said Kim Poffenroth, the province’s chief electoral office.
In 2018, the Liberal government of the day announced it would be instituting rules governing campaign spending in time for the 2020 local government elections. They were able to pass legislation allowing for the creation of rules, but were unable to introduce any before the fall 2018 provincial election that ultimately ended with the PCs forming a minority government.
So far, the government has made no announcements concerning municipal campaign finance rules. Jeff Carr, the minister of environment and local government, was not available for an interview Tuesday.
In both provincial and federal elections, the names of donors who contribute over a certain amount to a campaign are publicly disclosed and there are strict limits on the amount of money that can be spent. There are no such restrictions in New Brunswick’s municipal elections.
Moncton city councillor Brian Hicks has long called for transparency, which he says will allow potential conflicts of interest that arise through the course of municipal business to be better identified and avoided.
“There are many people that come before council, stand at the podium and ask for one thing or another. One example would be rezoning,” Hicks said.
“You might have a candidate that works in the land development area and they might receive money from a developer could stand at the podium and ask for their land to be rezone. At that point, that councillor should declare a conflict of interest and I think more would if it were public knowledge who contributed to their campaign.”
The New Brunswick Union of Municipalities is also supportive of campaign finance rules.
“Campaign finance rules are a great think for both the public and also for candidates themselves,” said executive director Margot Cragg.
“Rules provide greater transparency for the public so you know where the money is being spent and where it’s coming from. It also provides a level playing field so that all candidates are playing by the same rules.”
But Cragg says the key with any new rules is how they are implemented.
“What’s important for UMNB is that you take the time to get those rules right,” she said. “You can’t just copy and paste from the federal and provincial levels because there’s very important differences.”
Federal and provincial campaign finance rules are aided by the existence of political parties that are able to educate and police candidates to ensure things are being done above board. Since municipal candidates are more or less independent more of those burdens at the local government level would fall on Elections New Brunswick.
“It’s really important that everybody is playing by the same rules and if you’re putting those rules in place that folks know what they are,” Cragg said.
“Elected leaders are going into it because they love their community, they want to know what the rules are and that there’s support and information out there.”
There are also large differences in running a campaign for the mayor of a small town, versus a bid for one of the province’s three major cities.
“There are 156 voter in Meductic and over 52,000 in Moncton, so as you can imagine the campaigns are going to look very different. It’s important that campaign finance rules take into account different sizes of municipalities,” Cragg said.
Poffenroth said it’s hard to say how Elections NB would be impacted by new rules without knowing what those are. Limits on spending or transparency and disclosure requirements would all create different demands on the organization.
“We would play not only a role of overseeing and receiving the reports but we’d actually have a very significant education role, so there’s a lot of materials that would have to be prepared to actually educate candidates on what the rules are,” Poffenroth said.
“At this point despite the fact that there was talk of moving in that direction there was no clear direction as to what type of rules and what the scope of those rules would be.”
As for the coming elections, Poffenroth says it is far too late to introduce new rules, even if legislation were passed today.
“At this point it’s too late for Elections New Brunswick to be able to implement financing rules for the municipal election. The training that would have to be done, the forms, the systems that would have to be put in place to track the spending. It’s definitely too tight to the election at this point,” she said.