The curtain on government communication has fallen as Manitoba prepares to head to the polls on April 19.
Already signs of the changes were visible at Ag Days in Brandon, or rather, they weren’t visible.
“MAFRD staff will be part of the Ag Days trade show booths but will not be providing hand-outs or hanging banners or signage in accordance with the Election Financing Act,” said a spokesperson for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. “The Election Financing Act limits government communications during the 90-day period before an election and MAFRD will be observing this act.”
However, who exactly interprets the elections act is unclear.
Speaking on behalf of Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn, spokesman Caedmon Malowany said that, “the minister really has nothing to say about this since he is a victim of the blackout legislation as much as anyone.
“These are decisions made by the civil servants, not the political side,” he added.
The legislation was first introduced in 1983 by then NDP premier Howard Pawley and was later revamped by the current government in 2012. Despite this, Elections Manitoba has found NDP governments to be in violation of the act three times.
Some have speculated this is the reason behind the act’s strict interpretation.
“In the past it’s been treated in a very conservative manner,” said Chris Adams, a political scientist at St. Paul’s College. “And I expect it will be again this election.”
That means no government tweets, no statistics and no information on existing government programs or initiatives, with the exception of those required by law, that which pertains to government tenders or public safety, such as flood warnings or disease outbreaks.
This does prevent the government from announcing new spending or cutting ribbons in the 90 days leading up to the election, but Adams points out it also prevents the sitting government from releasing or addressing any potentially damaging information.
“It helps protect them from having to release information that could be politically sensitive, but in other ways they are also handcuffing themselves. For instance they can’t release statistics that show the government in a good light either, so it works both ways,” said the political scientist.
But he added that on the whole, the government is able to use the period to its advantage.
While exactly who is directing the interpretation of the advertising ban during the 2016 pre-election period is unclear, Adams noted it was the Clerk of the Executive Council that advised the civil service on how to implement the blackout period during the 2011 election.
“It wasn’t so much a political thing of ministers putting their fingers in the pie, it was more of this is how it’s going to be interpreted and everybody should be sticking to the rule of law, so people have been very strict in adhering to it,” said Adams.
All that is of little comfort to farm organizations that need to be in regular communication with the Manitoba government and its various departments.
Earlier this month, Keystone Agricultural Producers and other organizations learned that the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) would be cancelling its annual consultation meetings, usually held in February and March.
“Our board isn’t meeting with producer groups this year due to the election, yes, but we do want to make sure we keep those lines of communication open with producer groups,” said Jared Munro of the corporation’s Portage la Prairie office.
To that end, producer organizations have been invited to send any feedback, input or recommendations to MASC in writing.
“It’s not a huge surprise, but it is unfortunate, because when you do things like this, people definitively get sideswiped,” said Keystone president Dan Mazier. “It’s really too bad there just can’t be an adult conversation about this and how it impacts agriculture in particular, given the seasonality of our industry.”
Given the consistent frustration being expressed with the way the Elections Financing Act is applied, Adams said it’s very likely it will be reviewed once again following the provincial election.
“I think that what might happen in the future, is that it might just be interpreted more liberally,” he said. “Right now it’s interpreted very strictly and there is latitude… so I can see the interpretation of the act being done differently under other governments.”