[Democracy Watch Logo][Op-ed]

Election ad spending law helps democracy by limiting influence of wealthy interests
Honesty and accountability measures the real solution to voters' concerns

(The following opinion piece, by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, was published in much shorter, letter-length form in The National Poston January 5, 2006.  Despite the false claims in the Globe and Mail editorials referred to in the opinion piece set out below, the Globe and Mail refused to publish a correction of the false claims)

National Citizens Coalition (NCC) Vice-President Gerry Nicholls achieved the remarkable feat in a recent op-ed (December 9) in the Globe and Mail of talking out of both sides of his mouth while claiming to be gagged by a federal law.

Inaccurate, inconsistent and exaggerated claims are the ongoing basis of the NCC's campaign against the limits in Canada's Election Act on spending on advertising by non-political parties during federal elections.

The Globe and Mail editorial board repeated some of these false claims in a follow-up editorial (December 10), and the National Post editorial board also used similar false claims in a recent editorial about the law (December 23).

Under the law, groups and individuals can spend as much money, time and effort as they want on news conferences, news releases, media interviews, op-eds (like the NCC's), letters to the editor, public education events, candidate debates, websites (including website ads), emails (including so-called "viral" emails that have been proven to be an effective way to reach youth), newsletters and mailings to group members during a federal election.  Many groups, and some individuals, are using these methods effectively during this election, as they have in every past election.

For example, Democracy Watch has received national media coverage 10 times, and regional media coverage 22 times, in the campaign's first five weeks; has a special election webpage to highlight its key issues, and; will continue to issue news releases, hold news conferences, and send out email action alerts to thousands of supporters across Canada through the rest of the campaign.

But also under the law, each group or individual can also spend up to $172,050 nationally (or $3,441 in each riding) in advertising their cause (the original limits were $150,000 and $3,000 but they increase each year based on the inflation rate).

As is obvious from the above, the NCC's first false claim was that the law makes it "virtually impossible for non-political parties to meaningfully participate in any election debate."  The National Posts editorial made the similarly false claim that "concerned individuals who might otherwise offer an original or even contentious alternative point of view are denied their say."

The NCC's Nicholls also claims that anyone who paid for a full-page ad in the Globe and Mail "could possibly be thrown in jail for up to five years."  Given that such an ad costs about $64,000 this claim goes beyond exaggeration and is simply a lie.

The Posts editorial similarly falsely claimed that "for the simple act of offering an opinion in an advertisement about the merits of the government or its alternatives during an election" a private citizen or organization faces "imprisonment" and that the law means that individuals and groups are not able "to buy a piece of radio time or newspaper ad."

The Globe's editorial board put it differently, but just as falsely, by claiming that it is "illegal" during federal elections for individuals to spend their own money to speak their mind, for a community group to buy ads in the city papers or for a national group to run a series of TV ads.

In fact, ads in many community papers cost far less than $3,400, and given that most papers are distributed in more than one riding, the limit on spending on such ads would usually be five to 10 times higher than $3,400.

National newspaper ads in the Post cost from about $6,500 (quarter-page) to $26,000 (full-page), and in the Globe from $16,000 to $64,000.

And, for example, a 30-second national TV ad during a hockey game on CBC-TV costs about $28,000, during Air Farce about $4,500, and during the morning news or "Politics" show about $120, while a 30-second national ad on CTV costs from $1,400 (late night) to $21,000 (Sunday prime time) to at top level of $86,000.

So, in fact, a group or individual could run an extensive series of national print and TV ads (depending on production costs and when the ads ran) without coming even close to violating the law.

The NCCs editorial also made the self-contradicting claim that ads do not affect the outcome of elections -- if so, why does the NCC want the right to advertise without limit?  Why would anyone want to spend lots of money to have no effect?

In its 2004 ruling upholding the law, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that limiting spending by so-called "third-parties" is important for three reasons:  "(1) to promote equality in the political discourse; (2) to protect the integrity of the financing regime applicable to candidates and parties; and (3) to ensure that voters have confidence in the electoral process."

The Supreme Court properly concluded that whether or not ads affect election outcomes, they can affect election debates.  If spending on ads by the tens thousand or so interest groups in Canada was unlimited, the wealthiest groups (mainly corporations and unions) and wealthy individuals would have a much greater capacity to drive the election in the direction of their interests, and also to attack specific candidates whose total campaign spending limit ranges between $16,000 and $86,000 (depending on the number of voters in their riding - the average limit is about $55,000).

In every poll conducted in the past 15 years, about 80% of Canadians have expressed concern about wealthy people and organizations using money to have more influence over government than others.

The federal ad spending limit effectively addresses this concern in a democratic way by restricting, but not banning, paid speech -- essentially extending the fundamental democratic election principle of "one person, one vote" to the area of ad spending during elections.

The Globe's editorial also claimed, without any evidence to back up the claim, that "Voter turnout is low, cynicism high" and that unlimited advertising spending by third parties would help solve these two problems and the law is an "injury" to Canada as a result.

Actually, polls over the past decade show clearly that dishonest, unethical, wasteful and irresponsible actions by federal government officials (including helping wealthy interests while ignoring broad public concerns), and lack of accountability for wrongdoing in government, are the root causes of both the lower voter turnout and higher cynicism.

Unfortunately, mainly because politicians write all the laws, it is still legal 138 years after the country was created for candidates and party leaders and party spin-doctors to lie to voters during federal elections, and for federal Cabinet ministers, politicians, their staff and government employees to lie to voters in between elections.

In fact, federal politicians have gone so far to protect themselves from accountability for their election promises as to make it illegal for candidates to sign a pledge that they will keep their promises if elected or that they will resign if they fail to keep their promises.

Similarly, the ethics, spending, hiring, and transparency laws federal politicians have written for themselves are full of loopholes, ineffectively enforced, with no mandatory minimum penalties.

Canadians have what they want with the law limiting third party advertising spending.  They're still waiting for loophole-free, effectively enforced government accountability laws with high penalties.

While the Conservatives have done much more than the other parties by pledging to pass a law containing 52 government accountability measures as the first thing they will do if elected, their package does not include an honesty-in-politics law and has other key gaps.

So far, none of the other parties have matched the Conservatives promise.  Even if they do, because of rampant past "bait-and-switch" false promise-making by parties of every political stripe, very likely the only way a party leader could effectively reach out to skeptical voters is to defy the federal election law and pledge in writing to resign if they break their promises.

After all, why should voters trust the party leaders' promises if the leaders don't trust themselves enough to stake their own jobs on keeping their promises?

The next couple of weeks will determine whether there is a real leader amongst our current federal political misleaders, a flag bearer for an honest, ethical, open, waste-preventing, and accountable federal government, a leader Canadians clearly want, and very much deserve.

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