New rules may be needed for political parties asking personal questions: lawyer

WINNIPEG – Candidates for the leadership of the Manitoba Liberal Party are being asked about their finances, their spouses, their children and more.

The personal nature of the questions, says one expert in privacy law, demonstrates a need for new rules governing how political parties gather and keep personal information.

“The reality is that there aren’t (privacy) laws that apply directly to political parties for most of their activities,” said Brian Bowman, a Winnipeg business lawyer who specializes in privacy issues.

“I wouldn’t say that they contravene legislation, but certainly the type of privacy-invasive questions that I’m seeing here would make me question whether or not they’re meeting the spirit and the intent of the privacy legislation that Canadians rely upon in their interactions with government and the private sector.”

An eight-page questionnaire given to candidates for the provincial Liberal leadership includes several personal questions.

“Has any child under your care ever been apprehended by Child and Family Services? If yes, please give details,” reads one item on the questionnaire, which was obtained by The Canadian Press.

“Have you or your spouse ever been bankrupt … or is there any potential that you or your spouse are likely to declare or likely to be petitioned into bankruptcy?” reads another.

The form also asks candidates to name their spouse and children.

There are more than a dozen questions in all, including one that asks candidates whether they have ever served on a government agency, board or commission.

Were employers, landlords, others in the private sector or the government to ask the same questions, they could land in trouble, Bowman said. Like other provinces, Manitoba has a human rights code that prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, marital status, political association and other grounds.

That code, however, does not apply to the relationship between political candidates and their party. The candidates are not considered employees.

The Liberals say the questions have been used previously and are aimed at ensuring that candidates are ready for public office.

“The job of being a (politician) is significantly different from other jobs in that you can create law,” said Sam Dixon, party spokesman and a member of the party’s leadership committee.

“So, when we look at this, we look at the kind of things that would cause conflict of interest when you’re creating law.”

The question about bankruptcies is needed because a leadership candidate could one day be in charge of the public purse, Dixon said. The question about Child and Family Services is aimed in part at ensuring that candidates aren’t running to settle a personal score after having their children seized, he added.

The questions may be no different from those of any other party. For Bowman, they are an example of why privacy laws may need to be revamped to cover political parties — not just what they ask of their candidates, but also what information they gather from supporters and volunteers.

“Political parties are in a unique spot in terms of the legislation and in terms of Canadians’ expectations,” Bowman said.

The Manitoba Liberals are looking to replace outgoing leader Jon Gerrard at a convention Oct. 26. The only candidate so far is Winnipeg lawyer Rana Bokhari. Dougald Lamont, a vice-president of marketing at a Winnipeg tech company, has said he will file his nomination papers soon.

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