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MPs’ CWB electioneering clears ethics office

Conservative MPs’ letters to Prairie farmers during the recent Canadian Wheat Board elections broke no federal ethics rules, according to the government’s ethics watchdog.

Mary Dawson, the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, says she won’t pursue a review of letters sent to farmers by David Anderson, a southwestern Saskatchewan MP and the Tories’ parliamentary secretary for the CWB.

But Dawson’s decision, which Anderson circulated Monday in a press release, does not let Tory MPs off the hook for other criticisms levelled at them for their letters endorsing pro-deregulation candidates in the CWB election. Those criticisms include the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) recent allegation that the letters may have breached federal privacy law.

Dawson, in her Jan. 9 letter, rejects a request for a review from Winnipeg MP Pat Martin, who until November 2008 was the NDP’s critic for privacy and ethics.

Dawson’s ruling, according to Anderson, “clearly indicates that we were advancing a clear government policy to bring about marketing freedom for western Canadian farmers and that there was nothing inappropriate about that,” he said Monday in his release.

Anderson, in his defense, cited other Tory MPs’ mailouts to constituents in the CWB electoral districts up for grabs in last fall’s farmer vote. Dawson noted the other MPs’ letters were “substantially the same” except in terms of which pro-deregulation candidates they endorsed.

Deregulating the CWB’s single marketing desk for Prairie wheat and barley is a well-known Conservative policy plank. But MPs’ endorsements did not change the slim margin on the CWB board favouring the single-desk system. Farmers in the contested districts again elected four pro-single-desk directors and one pro-deregulation director.

Either way, the ethics commissioner said Anderson’s letter to constituents “appears to have been sent as part of a general initiative to support (CWB) candidates on the basis of the policies they supported” and not “to advance the private interests of any particular candidate.”

And while specific candidates’ interests could well have been advanced by Anderson’s letters of endorsement, those interests were “independent of and incidental to Mr. Anderson’s actions in his efforts to promote marketing choice,” Dawson wrote.

Essentially, “the furthering of a private interest was not an issue in this matter,” she wrote.

“Inappropriate use”

Dawson said Martin’s other claims are outside her jurisdiction, including his claim that Anderson’s letters were an “inappropriate use of a member of Parliament’s ‘franking’ privileges” to send letters to constituents at taxpayers’ expense. Use of the House of Commons mail service is a matter for the Commons’ board of internal economy, Dawson wrote.

Anderson, in his release Monday, added that in previous CWB elections, MPs’ right to send mailouts has been affirmed by Commons legal counsel, “which confirmed that such mailouts were neither advertising nor an expense.”

Furthermore, Dawson wrote Friday, “I am also aware of public commentary related to the integrity of the CWB election process and to privacy concerns associated with the list of eligible (CWB election) voters used by Mr. Anderson. There are other bodies mandated to deal with those matters.”

The NFU last week said it had asked the RCMP to investigate the MPs’ letters for any breaches of privacy legislation. The Saskatoon-based farmers’ group alleges that the home and corporate addresses used on the MPs’ letters, typos and all, are in over 50 cases far too similar to the addresses as found on the CWB voters’ list.

The NFU in December said it had also written to federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, asking her to investigate the letters.

Another pro-single-desk farmers’ group, Real Voice for Choice, has previously said it would press for CWB election co-ordinator Ian Craven of accounting firm Meyers Norris Penny to investigate the MPs’ letters.

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