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Commissioner of Canada Elections rolls over and lets RightNow anti-abortion group off for election law violations

Decision means rules for third parties support of parties and candidates left somewhat unclear for the next election

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch released the recent decision Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté that let the anti-abortion group RightNow off for violating the federal election law by colluding with Conservative Party candidates (and maybe the Conservative Party) during the 2019 federal election.

The Commissioner’s decision is being released after DWatch sent a letter to the Commissioner mid-March calling for a public ruling, given 18 months have passed since the election.

While it doesn’t provide details, the Commissioner’s April 13th decision makes it clear that RightNow violated the Canada Elections Act (CEA) in the Commissioner’s opinion, as it says the Commissioner has:

“the expectation that the entity will act in accordance with the requirements of the Act going forward. They form part of the entity’s compliance record and future non-compliance is more likely to be addressed using stricter formal means.” (6th paragraph)

The Commissioner’s decision seems to suggest RightNow violated the new rules prohibiting information-sharing collusion between a third party and a party or candidate (section 351.01 of the CEA), and that RightNow was let off because the anti-collusion rules were new (they came into force in June 2019, just a month before the regulated pre-election period began), as the decision says:

“The fact that these changes were both considerable and complex and that they came into force just prior to the start of the electoral campaign was another factor in the Commissioner’s decision to proceed informally in this matter.” (5th paragraph)

“The donation and anti-collusion rules are aimed at ensuring fair and democratic elections, and preventing lobby groups from unethically helping parties and candidates get elected, and so it was good that the election commissioner investigated the activities of RightNow supporting Conservative candidates,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “Unfortunately the commissioner has rolled over like a lapdog and let RightNow off, and as a result the donation and anti-collusion rules remain somewhat vague which will likely lead to more abuses in the next election.”

DWatch called for many more changes in 2018-2019 to stop the undemocratic and unethical influence of interest groups and wealthy individuals over parties, candidates and elections, especially because the Trudeau Liberals’ Bill C-76 made the bad changes of increasing the donation and third-party spending limits.

RightNow recruited campaign volunteers and offered them training through in-person sessions and webinars that contained some very direct information about volunteering for Conservative candidate campaigns, as reported by in this August 29, 2019 article and CBC in this September 6, 2019 article. RightNow also coordinated directing volunteers to campaigns.

RightNow confirmed that it was under investigation in a May 2020 National Post article, and that it had received a letter from the Commissioner’s Director of Investigations in February 2020. The Post article indicates that RightNow was planning to resist requests from the Commissioner’s investigators for documents and interviews about their activities.

The Commissioner’s decision seems to suggest that the focus of the investigation was whether RightNow and Conservative candidates (and maybe the Conservate Party) violated the new rule added in spring 2019 to the CEA (section 351.01) that prohibits a party or candidate (or person associated with a candidate’s campaign) and a third party from colluding, including by sharing information, in order to influence the third party’s partisan activities, advertising or surveys during the election campaign period.

Democracy Watch’s position is that, to find a violation of the anti-collusion rule, the Commissioner was not required to find proof that RightNow undertook an activity because of sharing information with Conservative candidates or the Conservative Party. Instead, all the Commissioner needed to find is evidence that information was shared “in order to influence” RightNow’s activities.

The Post article states that the letter from the Commissioner’s investigations director raised the question of whether the recruitment, training and coordination by RightNow was a non-monetary donation of services to Conservative candidates, which is a violation of the Canada Elections Act (CEA) because only individuals are allowed to contribute to parties, riding associations and candidates (see subsection 363(1) and definition of “non-monetary contribution” in subsection 2(1)).

Democracy Watch’s opinion is that the only way RightNow could have legally provided those services to candidates is if the candidates paid it market value for the services. According to candidate reports to Election Canada (filed under subsection 477.59(2)(b)), RightNow was not paid for the services.

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Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443
Email: [email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Money in Politics Campaign