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Manitoba’s Elections Commissioner Says the Government Broke Ban on Election Promotion

July 6, 2023 1:51 PM | The Canadian Press

By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press

Heather Stefanson

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson speaks at the convention centre in Winnipeg on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

WINNIPEG — Manitoba’s commissioner of elections has ruled the government violated a ban on advertising during election periods when it invited reporters to an event with Premier Heather Stefanson.

Commissioner Bill Bowles adds, however, that he does not believe the breach was intentional and it was extremely unlikely to have had any substantive effect on the outcome of the vote.

The controversy stems from an announcement by WestJet in March of last year that it was increasing service to Winnipeg.

Stefanson was part of the announcement, and her press secretary had reached out to some media outlets in advance to advise them of the event.

At the time, a byelection campaign was underway in the Fort Whyte constituency in Winnipeg, a longtime Tory seat that the party narrowly won again.

Bowles said the press secretary’s actions were a violation of a restriction on government promotion and advertising during election periods, because the premier’s office was using government, not party, resources.

“My understanding is that the purpose of Section 92 (of the Election Financing Act) is to prevent the party in power, which has access to enormous government resources, from gaining an electoral advantage by using those resources to assist them in getting their message out,” Bowles wrote in his decision released this week.

“I should note, however, that I do not believe the breach was an intentional one. The nature of (press secretary Olivia) Billson’s job must put her in contact with the press on a frequent basis and complying with Section 92 during an election period would, I suspect, be particularly difficult for her.”


Billson was one of the longest-serving Tory staff members, having been press secretary for both Stefanson and former premier Brian Pallister since 2016. She parted ways with the government this spring, and received a severance payment of $35,959, figures on the province’s public-sector disclosure web page indicate.

The ban on government advertising during general elections or byelections does not cover all forms of announcements or communication. There are exceptions for matters such as bills before the legislature and public safety announcements. Premiers and cabinet ministers are also allowed to promote their speeches and invite people to hear their speeches, as long as government resources are not used.

The Election Financing Act does not provide for any penalties against governments that violate the restrictions on advertising and promotion. A brief written statement from the premier’s office Thursday said the government accepts the commissioner’s findings.

“We respect the commissioner’s ruling and have ensured technical officers are briefed on rules pertaining to blackout periods to avoid unintentional breaches.”

The Fort Whyte byelection was called to fill Pallister’s seat after his resignation in 2021. Obby Khan retained the seat for the Tories, beating Liberal candidate Willard Reaves by 197 votes.

The Opposition New Democrats, who filed the complaint over Billson’s actions, pointed out Stefanson had previously been found guilty of spending $1,800 on her bid for the Progressive Conservative leadership before the campaign period formally began in 2021.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont accused the Tories in a written statement of undermining democracy.

“These rules are supposed to help create a level playing field for parties and voters. It’s clear that’s not happening.”

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