[Democracy Watch Logo][Op-ed]

Federal election ad spending law helps democracy by limiting influence of wealthy interests

Despite the false claims in an opinion piece by Claire Hoy published by the National Post on May 4, 2006, the Post refused to publish the opinion piece set out below, by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, and the Post also refused to publish a much shorter, letter-length form of the opinion piece (in other words, the Post refused to correct the false claims in Hoy's piece).

    Similarly, in December 2005, in The National Postpublished an editorial that also contained false claims on the same subject of the federal law limiting spending on paid advertising by non-political parties (so-called "third parties") during elections, and at that time the Post also refused to publish an opinion piece by Democracy Watch (although the Post did publish a short-letter that corrected some of the false claims made in the editorial). 

Also in December 2005, the Globe and Mail published an opinion piece and editorial that contained similar false claims about the same subject (falsely claiming that the federal law is a "gag law", and also refused to publish either an opinion piece or letter correcting the false claims.

To see the opinion piece Democracy Watch submitted to the National Post and the Globe and Mail in January 2006, that both papers refused to publish, click here.

Federal election ad spending law helps democracy by limiting influence of wealthy interests

Claire Hoy achieved the remarkable feat in a recent article (National Post-May 4) 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 arguments of critics against the limits in Canada's Election Act on spending on advertising by non-political parties (so-called "third parties") during federal elections.

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, 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 received national media coverage 26 times, and regional media coverage 64 times, in the recent election campaign; had a special election webpage to highlight its key issues, and; issued 10 news releases (including two report cards on the parties' platforms), held two news conferences, and send out email action alerts to thousands of supporters across Canada through the campaign.

As is obvious from the above, Claire Hoy's first false claim was that the law means only political parties "have a right to express themselves during election campaigns."

Hoy even admits that his claim is false, but only "technically" as he then goes on to make the further false claims that "the rules against spending on political advertising are so strict that, if you're not a political party, you may as well save your cash" because the amount you are allowed to spend "won't buy you a couple of full-page advertisements in the major newspapers."

In fact, under the law each group or individual can also spend up to $175,800 nationally (or $3,516 in each riding) in advertising their cause (the original limits (which the out-of-date Hoy cited in his article) were $150,000 and $3,000 but they increase in April each year based on the inflation rate).

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

Hoy's editorial also made the self-contradicting claim that ads do not affect the outcome of elections -- if so, why does Hoy 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 (a point Hoy neglects to mention).  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.

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