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Trudeau sets new trend for PMs stumping in by-elections and raises fresh questions on expenses

OTTAWA — In Calgary Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will confirm a unique pattern he began last fall in Medicine Hat — a sitting prime minister who will jump right in and openly campaign for any underdogs flying the Liberal flag in a by-election.

Last fall, in the southern Alberta riding of Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner, the Liberals were handily beaten by the Conservatives and, the early line is that Conservatives should be able to count on easy wins on April 3 when voters in the southern Calgary ridings of Calgary Heritage and Calgary Midnapore pick the MPs that will succeed Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney respectively.

Nonetheless, Trudeau is the star attraction at a Wednesday campaign rally in Calgary, a city which sent two Liberal MPs to Ottawa in the 2015 general election, an election that saw Liberal success in Calgary for the first time since another Trudeau swept to power in 1968.

Trudeau the Younger is not content to have simply a beach-head in Alberta — the Liberals have two seats each in Calgary and Edmonton — and wants more.

And while it is rare but not unheard-of for a sitting PM to stump in a by-election, Trudeau’s decision to campaign in Medicine Hat last fall and now Calgary has raised some questions for his own party — and his party’s opponents — about how to account for the costs of a campaigning prime minister.

Are taxpayers, for example, helping to pay for a campaigning PM? And what about election spending limits? Isn’t the expense of a prime minister’s tour — with all the security, special vehicles, additional prime ministerial aides — likely to be too much for the spending limits by which all campaigns must abide?

So far, the Liberal Party of Canada has satisfied itself that it will not only be doing right by the taxpayer but it will also be doing right by Elections Canada, the referee that enforces the election financing rules.

Indeed, the party’s compliance officer has what amounts to a ‘comfort letter’ from Elections Canada about some aspects of how the party is interpreting what counts as an election expense for a campaigning PM and what does not.

Moreover, Braeden Caeley, the party’s communications director, says that, so far as the taxpayer is concerned, the party will reimburse the federal treasury for expenses such as hotels, meals, or airfare incurred as a result of the prime minister’s political activity.

Mind you, those airfare costs will be at the rate of equivalent economy airfare for a Calgary-Ottawa flight and not the $5,000-an-hour that the Department of National Defence says it costs to operate the RCAF Challenger executive jet that took Trudeau to Calgary and will take him back to Ottawa.

Canadian security agencies do not want prime ministers on commercial aircraft and prefer they use military jets and military pilots. But that is not a hard-and-fast rule, particularly when there are elections.

During a general election campaign, an incumbent prime minister — like other party leaders — will campaign using a chartered commercial jet flown by commercial pilots. The cost of that aircraft is borne exclusively by political parties and not by the taxpayer.

Moreover, Trudeau, during his short time in office, has already flown at least twice on a non-military aircraft. As the National Post first reported, during his Christmas holiday, he and his family used the personal helicopter of the Aga Khan to make the 110-km journey between Nassau and the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas.

If the party had to account for the full cost of flying Trudeau to Calgary and back on the Challenger — Trudeau has no publicly announced official events there other than the campaign appearances — the bill could easily top $35,000.

That would go against the national party’s anticipated spending limit of about $450,000 for the five by-elections currently underway. (In addition to the two in Calgary, there is one each in Markham, Ottawa, and Montreal.)

All federal parties do not have to report details of spending in any by-election in 2017 until June 30, 2018.

Campaigning prime ministers and campaigning party leaders are also exempt from the costs of the security detail assigned to protect them, Elections Canada has ruled. Those costs, be it during a general election or a by-election, come from the RCMP’s budget which, in turn, comes from the government’s general revenue fund.

Stephen Harper never campaigned publicly in any of 29 by-election contests held during the nine years while he was prime minister. But he did show up in a 2010 by-election in Winnipeg North with a brief appearance at the Conservative candidate’s headquarters.

That 2010 appearance, though it was captured on a video posted to YouTube, was not public, no reporters were invited to witness it let alone even told about it, and Harper spoke only to campaign staff and not to voters.

The Conservative Party later claimed a “miscellaneous expense” that day of about $450.

The party did not respond Monday to questions about expenses associated with Harper’s 2010 by-election appearance..

Harper, though, had been in Winnipeg that day for some other business associated with this official duties as prime minister.

(In that by-election, the Conservative candidate finished third with 10 per cent of the vote and the riding, which had been held mostly by New Democrats since the early 1960s swung to the Liberals.)

Neither Paul Martin nor Jean Chretien are believed to have campaigned in by-elections.

Former political staffers for Brian Mulroney can recall him campaigning in by-elections at least three times in the nine years he was prime minister. Pierre Trudeau also stumped for his candidates in some by-elections.

The thinking at Liberal Party headquarters right now is that Trudeau is a major asset to the Liberal brand and should be deployed in support of that brand whenever possible.

The party also believes that it’s only fair that all leaders should be able to campaign in by-elections, even if that leader is the prime minister.