[Democracy Watch Logo][Op-ed]

Supreme Court Decision Democratizes Interest Group Participation in Elections by Limiting Wealthy Interests

(The following opinion piece, by Aaron Freeman, Board member of Democracy Watch, was published in The Ottawa Citizenon May 19, 2004)

For more information about all of Democracy Watch actions on money in politics issues in Canada, go to Democracy Watch's Money in Politics Campaign webpage

Yesterday's Supreme Court judgment upholding Canada's third-party election advertising limits law will help establish the right of all Canadians to have elections in which special-interest money does not dominate political debate.

Third-party election advertising is money spent by corporations, unions and other organizations during an election to support or oppose a candidate or party.  Such advertising is commonplace is the United States, where groups often sponsor "attack ads" against those running for office in order to influence the vote.  Although not as prevalent in Canada, unions, business groups and other organizations frequently air such ads during elections.

Canadian elections law keeps the cost of running for office somewhat reasonable by requiring candidates and parties to adhere to spending limits.  But these limits can be rendered meaningless if the message of a party or candidate can simply be delivered through a third party. 

Stephen Harper, who launched the challenge to the law when he was the head of the National Citizens Coalition, argues the limits constitute a "gag law" that infringes freedom of speech.  He succeeded at the Alberta Court of Appeal in striking down the law, but the Supreme Court overturned this judgment yesterday.

While restricting election spending does limit how much one can express one's self in an election, the third-party measures deal only with advertising, so people are free to conduct media interviews, issue press releases and newsletters, and shout their messages from the rooftops without being subject to the law's provisions.  The third-party limits are clearly not targeted at those with modest or even average incomes.  The restrictions in the law limit advertising expenses to $150,000 per person or organization, and there is a $3,000 limit if the advertising is focused on a single riding or candidate. 

The law is therefore aimed exclusively at the wealthy interests who can afford to pay for attack ad campaigns.

Particularly at a time when many Canadians feel that no party represents their points of view, people should have the right to express their political views during an election.  But when expression is boosted by big money, it can tilt the political agenda in favour of wealthy special interests, drowning out democratic debate.

This was vividly illustrated in the 1988 federal election, in which business groups spent an estimated $13 million on a barrage of advertising in support of the free trade deal, while their opponents spent roughly $1 million.  Given that the free trade deal was the key issue of the 1988 election, and only one political party favoured the deal, the pro-trade spending was clearly partisan.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court recognized that limiting spending by third-party lobbies 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."

In making this judgment, the Supreme Court has recognized that the principle of "one person, one vote" cannot be upheld when wealthy special interests are allowed to use their money to skew the democratic process.