The Manitoba government is planning to loosen some of the rules that control what it can say and do during pre-election periods, and the Opposition NDP says that changes are unfair.
A bill now before the legislature would make several amendments to what is commonly called the “blackout period” on government advertising and activities in the months leading up to an election.
The current law prohibits the government and Crown agencies from advertising or publishing any information about their programs, with some exceptions such as important matters of public health and safety.
One new exemption being proposed by the Progressive Conservative government would allow cabinet ministers to speak on any issue under their portfolio, as long as government resources are not used to promote the event or publish the ministers’ comments afterward.
Tory house leader Kelvin Goertzen said the government is trying to address concerns from the media and opposition that, in previous election years, ministers have not been made available to answer questions about important topics.
“There was a lot of confusion around (the law). It was stopping government from doing sort of routine things,” Goertzen said.
“It was preventing ministers from speaking about issues because they were getting advice that they couldn’t speak about a public issue.”
Opposition says exemption is too broad
But New Democrat legislature member Mark Wasyliw said the proposed exemption is too broad. Ministers would, if the bill is passed, be able to make all sorts of partisan promises using the profile of their ministerial title, he said.
“Basically, you could have a minister standing in front of (Progressive) Conservative party headquarters in the middle of an election, making a … government announcement and saying ‘well, listen we didn’t spend any taxpayer dollars on that,'” Wasyliw said.
“And that … gets to the heart of the problem, which is abusing your office in pursuit of electoral advantage.”
The bill would also allow government departments and Crown agencies to continue publishing information they regularly do, such as monthly health care statistics.
Controversy erupted in the last election when the Tories wanted to release monthly data about wait times at Winnipeg emergency departments.
The proposed new law would also shorten the blackout period, in cases where governments stick to fixed election dates, to 60 days from 90. Goertzen said the time frame is more reasonable.
In cases where governments call early elections, such as The Tories did last year, the bill would require the government to announce a blackout period at least 32 days before calling an election.
Combined with the minimum 28-day campaign period, the change would guarantee voters and opposition parties a 60-day heads-up prior to an election.