Big money prob­lems

How to demo­crat­i­cally re­strict third party ‘PAC’ ad spend­ing, cor­rup­tion in Cana­dian pol­i­tics

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY DUFF CONACHER Duff Conacher is the Co-founder of Democ­racy Watch and a Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa

Some re­cent com­men­tary about advertising by third party in­ter­est groups (or “PACs”)) has been in­ac­cu­rate and/or has in­cluded un­demo­cratic or in­com­plete pro­pos­als for en­sur­ing big money doesn’t dom­i­nate, let alone cor­rupt, Cana­dian pol­i­tics.

First, while a few new coali­tions started up re­cently and started run­ning paid ads (HarperPAC, En­gage Canada, Work­ing Cana­di­ans), ev­ery in­ter­est group, and in­di­vid­ual, is a third party/PAC.

As a re­sult, the call by some for all PACs that run ads to shut down is non­sen­si­cal as that would mean all these groups dis­band­ing and in­di­vid­u­als also re­frain­ing from such advertising.

Call­ing for a shut­down is also clearly un­con­sti­tu­tional, although lim­its on ads are con­sti­tu­tional. The Supreme Court of Canada in its 2004 rul­ing in the Harper v. Canada case (yes, Prime Min­is­ter Harper, then the head of the Na­tional Cit­i­zens Coali­tion, was the plain­tiff in the case) up­held lim­its the Lib­er­als put into the Canada Elec­tions Act. The limit was that third par­ties were only al­lowed to spend up to $150,000 on na­tional paid advertising dur­ing the 37-day elec­tion cam­paign pe­riod, or $3,000 in each rid­ing (in­dexed to in­fla­tion so that the lim­its are now $205,800 and $4,116).

Im­por­tantly, it is only a limit on paid advertising. There are no re­stric­tions on in­di­vid­u­als or groups spend­ing money on events or de­bates, is­su­ing news re­leases or op-eds, post­ing videos on In­ter­net sites, post­ing to so­cial media sites or send­ing emails to their group mem­bers or sup­port­ers.

As the Supreme Court ruled, un­lim­ited paid ads by in­ter­est groups al­low them to dom­i­nate elec­tion cam­paign is­sue de­bates by drown­ing out other, less wealthy voices, and to at­tack can­di­dates who have spend­ing lim­its and so can’t fully re­spond. Lim­its on paid ads are there­fore needed to en­sure a demo­cratic elec­tion process.

The Act also pro­hibits do­na­tions from for­eign­ers to third par­ties to pay for the ads, and re­quires dis­clo­sure of all ad donors. As a re­sult, for­eign gov­ern­ments, dic­ta­tors, busi­nesses and other or­ga­ni­za­tions could be fund­ing third-party pre-elec­tion ads right now.

Many com­men­ta­tors have ne­glected to men­tion that we have an un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion now at the fed­eral level – the elec­tion date is known at least some­what for sure given the ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment and some­what fixed elec­tion date that was added to the Act in 2007. This has al­lowed par­ties and third party in­ter­est groups to plan their advertising long be­fore the of­fi­cial elec­tion cam­paign be­gins.

The gaps the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion have re­vealed can be closed by ex­tend­ing the limit and other mea­sures to cover a longer pe­riod of time be­fore elec­tion day – say four to six months. To keep the limit con­sti­tu­tional, it would have to be in­creased by a pro­por­tional amount – likely up to $400,000-$600,000 na­tion­ally, and $8,000-$12,000 in each rid­ing.

Ev­ery­one should re­al­ize that ex­tended pre-elec­tion cam­paign mea­sures will only ap­ply when there is a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment. In any mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment sit­u­a­tion, no one will know in ad­vance ex­actly when an elec­tion is go­ing to hap­pen, and so there will not be a fixed pre-elec­tion pe­riod dur­ing which spend­ing can be lim­ited.

In­di­vid­u­als are al­lowed now to do­nate $3,000 an­nu­ally to each fed­eral party and its can­di­dates - far more than an av­er­age Cana­dian can af­ford to give.

While busi­nesses, unions and other or­ga­ni­za­tions are banned from do­nat­ing, are they fun­nel­ing do­na­tions through their ex­ec­u­tives or em­ploy­ees?

Elec­tions Canada has failed to do such an au­dit over the past 11 years since fed­eral lim­its were placed on do­na­tions from busi­nesses and other or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The other area of con­cern is bundlers – peo­ple (of­ten lob­by­ists) who con­vince many friends and col­leagues to give large do­na­tions to par­ties or can­di­dates. Both the fed­eral Com­mis­sioner of Lob­by­ing and Elec­tions Canada have failed to con­duct au­dits to re­veal the ex­tent of this fundrais­ing stream (or flood), even though it has been illegal for sev­eral years un­der Rule 8 of the fed­eral Lob­by­ists’ Code of Con­duct for lob­by­ists to fundraise for fed­eral politi­cians they are lob­by­ing.

Be­yond au­dits, the so­lu­tion to stop­ping these big money sources is to match the changes made by the Que­bec gov­ern­ment in 2013 by low­er­ing the in­di­vid­ual do­na­tion limit to $100 an­nu­ally, adding match­ing public fund­ing up to a set amount raised by a party or can­di­date, and restor­ing per-vote an­nual party fund­ing (which the Con­ser­va­tives elim­i­nated even though it is the most demo­cratic part of the fed­eral po­lit­i­cal fi­nance sys­tem).

Fi­nally, to en­sure fair is­sue de­bates in be­tween elec­tions, we should start with re­quir­ing dis­clo­sure of how much any in­di­vid­ual or in­ter­est group spends on each is­sue cam­paign, and of cam­paign fund­ing sources. If that re­veals a huge dis­par­ity in fund­ing, and fund­ing sources, then do­na­tions to is­sue cam­paigns, or at least paid ads, could be lim­ited.

Un­til all of these changes are made across Canada, big money will still dom­i­nate, and in some cases cor­rupt, our pol­i­tics.

The Public Ser­vice Al­liance of Canada says its 'Vote to Stop the Cuts' cam­paign will in­clude bill­boards, posters, ra­dio seg­ments and tar­geted online con­tent, but it does not plan to air TV ads.

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