A French language version of this piece appeared in the Quebec-based newspaper La Presse on April 8. 2021
by Maine Senator Richard A. Bennett
As a State Senator in your neighboring State of Maine, I have long worked for more amity and interaction between the Province of Quebec and my state. We have shared strong cultural and commercial connection for centuries, and our friendly relationship is very important for our mutual prosperity. So I write with concern about an issue that threatens to impair our relationship.
In 2018, Canada banned foreign influence in all elections with the Canada Elections Act. In the U.S. and in Maine, foreign influence is similarly illegal. Until recently, we believed our law was adequate to protect Maine voters from undue interference, until Hydro-Quebec (HQ), a Crown Corporation owned 100 percent by your government, exposed a dangerous loophole. HQ has exploited this loophole to pump more than $10 million into a political action committee (PAC) to influence Maine voters on a citizens’ referendum. To put this into perspective, the previous spending record on a referendum in Maine was $9.4 million, and we’re still seven months away from the November election.
That’s why I’ve sponsored a bill in the Maine Legislature to close this shocking loophole and safeguard Maine elections for Maine voters. My bill received a public hearing on March 15. Sophie Brochu, President and CEO of HQ, attended the hearing via Zoom to urge our state’s lawmakers to leave this dangerous loophole open so your government can continue to flood Maine voters with political ads to influence the outcome of our election.
In testimony, Ms. Brochu said, “We are here this morning defending our right to speak (in Maine’s election)” and that HQ is “quite troubled by this effort to suppress our right”, even though influence from Maine is explicitly prohibited from referendum efforts in Canada. She defended this double standard, saying that since referendums in Maine are initiated by the people, they shouldn’t be protected from direct interference by foreign governments, but since Canadian referendums are initiated by lawmakers, “you would not want a government to interfere with such a process.”
Ms. Brochu’s effort to downplay the gravity of our referendums did not sit well with lawmakers like myself. The threshold for Maine citizens to initiate a referendum is intentionally high so that only matters of utmost importance to the people of this state make it onto the ballot. I’m sure it’s true that your referendums are, as Ms. Brochu stated, “a big thing” and “politically loaded”, but I’m here to tell you that Maine’s referendums are equally valid, they are just as consequential as yours, and they should absolutely be subjected to the same common sense protections.
Ms. Brochu also said that HQ has been acting in “good faith” and following all of our election laws even though, before forming its political action committee (PAC), Hydro-Québec Maine Partnership, it spent $100,000 on efforts to influence Maine voters. This violation was deemed severe enough by the Maine Ethics Commission to assess a $35,000 fine, the second-largest campaign violation fine ever.
Last year, after this loophole was realized and Maine lawmakers introduced a bill very similar to mine (it failed to pass due to COVID), HQ changed its PAC address from Montreal to Connecticut in an effort to seem less foreign. The treasurer and principal officer are still residents of Quebec with company email addresses.
These are not actions of “good faith”, which is why a bipartisan group of 25 lawmakers sent a letter to the Premier of Quebec and the CEO of HQ to ask that they “cease all further campaign activities in Maine and let the people of Maine vote without further meddling in our elections.” HQ responded with a letter stating that its campaign would continue.
Now that a referendum opposing HQ’s project has cleared all hurdles for the November ballot, it has amped up spending even more, which is why the time to close this loophole is now. Please understand that, like you, we desire to have elections free of undue foreign influence.
###Senator Richard Bennett (R-Oxford) has served more than 12 years in the Maine Legislature, including a term as President of the Senate.