The problem with trying to police truthiness in political debate is where should it begin and where will it end?
Let’s begin with the Preston byelection.
Voters there went to the polls on Tuesday, August 8. The Houston government had known since January 25, 2023 — when incumbent Liberal MLA Angela Simmonds announced she planned to step down — that it would need to call this byelection.
This is — or should have been — more than your standard-issue byelection. Preston is a protected district that includes the historic majority Black communities of North Preston, East Preston and Cherrybrook. Given the history of race relations and racism in Nova Scotia, there is no excuse for leaving these communities, and the larger rural Black community, unrepresented in the legislature.
So why did Houston wait until the dog days of summer when no one was paying attention to politics anyway to call this by-election, and why did he schedule voting day for the day after a long weekend civic holiday when many people are likely to be on vacation?
But that wasn’t where I wanted to go today.
Twelve days before he called the byelection, Houston launched a radio and online ad campaign, attacking the federal carbon tax and blaming the Liberal government for an increase in the cost of gasoline, heating oil and diesel fuel, which was expected to take effect July 1.
The issue was far more complicated than the Tories chose to portray it, of course, including the reality that Ottawa had coupled the measure with quarterly direct cash rebates to consumers to help offset the increased price. And, hey… climate change.
While the 30-second radio spots and online ads were misleading as well as partisan, the real issue with the $56,000 campaign was that taxpayers were footing the bill for what was effectively Tory advertising before and during a byelection campaign.
The provincial Liberal party complained to Elections Nova Scotia, “the independent, non-partisan agency responsible for conducting provincial elections in Nova Scotia.”
In response, Lindsay Rodenkirchen, the assistant chief electoral officer, noted that Communications Nova Scotia, the government’s in-house “full-service communications agency” has “guidelines and protocols” about advertising government business around elections and byelections.
“Upon reviewing Communications Nova Scotia’s guidelines,” she added, “we made the request to Communications Nova Scotia staff to pull the remaining social media ads due to the partisan nature of the advertisements.”
While Brian Comer, the Houston cabinet minister responsible for Communications Nova Scotia called the request “a bit of an overreach,” he graciously agreed to “stop the campaign early.”
Of course he did. The government’s taxpayer-funded three-week pre-election propaganda campaign had been running for nearly two weeks and the radio ads were already done when the government agreed to call off the final three days of online ads.
Mission accomplished. At your expense. You’re welcome.
This brings us to the Tories and their own mid-campaign mischief-making.
As part of his campaign, Liberal candidate Carlo Simmonds has posted signs and distributed leaflets declaring, “Dump the Dump: Houston’s Conservatives have Done Nothing to Stop the Dump. We Must Stop Them.”
At issue is a potential construction and demolition disposal site in the constituency.
For all sorts of well-founded racism reasons, dumps are hot-button issues in Nova Scotia’s Black communities.
But the status of this particular proposal is murky.
According to the Houston government’s environment minister, there is no active application for a permit to develop such a site and therefore, according to a PC Party complaint to the chief electoral officer, “no current scenario in which the PC Party or government can address an issue related to this dump.”
Liberal leader Zach Churchill countered that the Houston government had already said no to a golf course in the Mabou Beach Provincial Park, telling the company not to even bother asking. He could do the same with this dump before it became a dump, Churchill argued. “Our candidate Carlo Simmons is standing up for the people in Lake Echo who don’t want a dump in their backyard.”
Chief Electoral Officer Dorothy Rice decided otherwise — “I do not feel they [the Liberals] are properly representing the facts of this matter” — and ordered the party to “remove all signs, by 12:00 AM Thursday, August 3, 2023, and cease use of related door knockers/flyers immediately.”
When the Liberals failed to comply — calling Rice’s decision “an attempt to suppress political discourse about a real and important issue days before the election” — Elections Nova Scotia escalated the situation, asking the RCMP to begin a formal investigation.
Oops. One hopes the Mounties will quickly conclude this is one political squabble they should steer clear of, that the election campaign will end however it ends, and that Elections Nova Scotia will learn its own lesson about trying to police political debate.
My guess is that this was not a political decision in the usual partisan sense. Rice, a chartered accountant who previously served as Election Nova Scotia’s chief financial officer, was only appointed to the top job last November after having been vetted by a selection committee that included representatives from Nova Scotia’s three main political parties.
But there are realpolitik nuances to the section of the Elections Act that Rice cited — “Every person is guilty of an offence who, during an election, knowingly makes, distributes or publishes a false statement of fact about a candidate’s character or conduct for the purpose of influencing the election” — she probably needs to read more deeply.
The fact is that both the Tory and the Liberal election messages were misleading or, at best, incomplete rather than actual false statements of fact. The difference is that the Tories were using taxpayer funds and employing a supposedly non-partisan government agency to pay for their propaganda.
Elections Nova Scotia was right to tell the Tories to cease and desist that. (It’s worth noting that the Conservative candidate’s election signs still include the tagline, “Vote Against the Liberal Carbon Tax.”) But the agency wrong to get involved in a squabble over disputed — and disputable — political “facts.”
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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