(translated into English)
As a senator from the neighboring state of Maine, I have long worked to promote friendship and harmonious interdependence between the province of Quebec and my state. We have shared strong cultural and business affinities for centuries, and our cordial relationship has greatly enhanced our mutual prosperity. In this context, I am particularly concerned about a topical issue which, I hope, will not overshadow our exemplary relationship.
In 2018, Canada ruled on the illegality of interference by foreign entities in elections by modernizing the Canada Elections Act. In the United States and Maine, interference by foreign governments is also illegal when our citizens are called upon to exercise their right to vote in a state-controlled process. Until recently, we believed our law was adequate to protect voters in Maine from undue interference.
Hydro-Québec, a Crown corporation wholly owned by your government, has however highlighted a flaw in our legislation. Hydro-Quebec exploited this loophole and, until December 2020, injected more than $10 million into a political action committee (PAC) aimed at influencing voters in Maine as part of a referendum on a electricity transmission line project in which it is a stakeholder. To put the amount invested by Hydro-Quebec into perspective, we should point out that the previous record of spending by all those who supported an option during a referendum in Maine was $ 9.4 million. The expenses incurred by Hydro-Québec in 2021 are not yet known and we are seven months away from the November referendum.
This is why I sponsored a bill in the Maine Legislature to close this loophole and protect Maine's electoral process for the democratic benefit of its constituents. The bill I introduced was the subject of a public hearing on March 15, 2021.
Sophie Brochu, President and CEO of Hydro-Québec, participated by Zoom to urge lawmakers to leave this loophole open.
The prospect of letting a foreign state-owned company sway a popular vote with extraordinary financial means is democratically unacceptable. This state of affairs calls out to my primary duty as a senator.
In her testimony, Ms. Brochu said: “We are here this morning to defend our right to speak. "M me Brochu also said that Hydro-Québec was" quite disturbed by this effort to remove [his] right to speak. " This declaration comes in the context where the involvement of any foreign government is explicitly prohibited in a referendum process in Canada. Mme Brochu defended the inequality, arguing that since the referendums in Maine are the initiative of citizens, they should not be protected from direct interference by foreign governments, unlike Canadian referendums that are initiated by legislators. Mme Brochu for downplayed the seriousness of the referendums in Maine particularly shocked me, as did my fellow legislators who attended his testimony.
It should be noted that the prerequisites for the citizens of Maine to be able to have a referendum accepted by the state are intentionally high. In doing so, only the questions of the greatest importance to the population appear on the ballot. I have no doubt that a referendum in Canada is, as Mme Brochu said, “a big thing” that is “politically charged”. I do not believe, however, that a foreign entity can condescendingly characterize our referendum process. I firmly believe that referendums in Maine are just as important as those in Canada and that they should therefore be subject to the same codes of ethics and respect.
Mme Brochu also said that Hydro-Québec had acted in "good faith" and met all our election laws even before forming his political action committee (PAC), Hydro-Québec Maine Partnership's society State spent $100,000 to influence voters in Maine.
This violation of the legal framework was deemed sufficiently serious by the Maine Ethics Commission for a fine of $ 35,000 to be imposed on Hydro-Québec.
Last year, after realizing the existence of the loophole in question, lawmakers in Maine introduced a bill very similar to mine (it was not passed due to COVID-19), Hydro-Quebec then changed its PAC address from Montreal to Connecticut in order to give itself a local flavor. These actions are certainly not compatible with the “good faith” mentioned by Mme Brochu.
In the above context, a bipartisan group of 25 legislators also sent a letter to the Premier of Quebec and Mme Brochu asking them to "cease all other campaigning activity in Maine and let the population vote without voting." to interfere more in [the] elections ”. Hydro-Quebec responded by letter indicating that its campaign would continue.
A referendum is scheduled for next November on the acceptability of the proposed electricity transmission line through Maine to supply Massachusetts. The citizen approach concerning this project was carried out rigorously and passed all the stages provided for by our legislation. The citizens of Maine must speak out based on their own interests. There is no need for massive foreign investment to be used to influence voters in Maine. Now is the time to close this loophole since, like you, we aspire to elections free from outside influence.
RICHARD BENNETT, A REPUBLICAN SENATOR FROM MAINE, THE AUTHOR SERVED FOR MORE THAN 12 YEARS IN THE STATE LEGISLATURE, INCLUDING A TERM AS SPEAKER OF THE SENATE