(The following opinion piece, by Aaron Freeman and Duff Conacher (Founding Directors of Democracy Watch), was published, in slightly different form, in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and the Montreal Gazette in July 1997)
"It's as if two boxers get into a ring under the same rules, in the same weight category, with the same gloves and, all of a sudden, a spectator jumps in and starts hitting one of them with hammer."
That was how then-Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Marc Hamel described the effect of massive special interest advertising and advocacy efforts in the 1988 election.
In that election, business groups spent an estimated $13 million advertising in support of the free trade deal, while the deal's opponents spent roughly $1 million. Other expenses incurred in support of the deal included company inserts of free trade promotional material in employees' pay slips and mailings to shareholders, and meetings with employees on company time to lecture them on the benefits of the deal. Given that only one political party favoured the free trade deal, and that the deal was the key issue of the 1988 election, these "third party" efforts were clearly partisan in nature.
Similarly, in the federal election just passed, the National Citizens' Coalition, Campaign Life, and at least two unions ran attack ads against the Liberals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last year, a Canadian appeal court struck down a $1,000 limit on third-party spending as a violation of the Charter right to freedom of speech. The limit was first enacted by the Conservative government just before the 1993 election. While the $1,000 limit law was not well-designed, it also does not make sense that large corporations, unions and other special interests now face no spending restrictions during an election campaign. As in the U.S., they can easily outspend political party candidates, who are subject to spending limits, allowing their voice to be heard louder and more often than others.
The court held that massive advertising campaigns do not influence voters' decision-making, but it is simply not believable that these organizations would spend millions of dollars on a tactic that has no effect. The court's ruling ignores the fact that high spending by one side does affect the ability of all sides of a debate to by heard equally.
Moreover, studies do indicate that advertising is a potent tool in influencing voter behaviour. For example, according to a national survey of voters conducted shortly after the 1988 election, advocacy advertising tied with the leaders' debates as the most important factors in deciding on the issue. Thirty-one percent of respondents said advertising affected their vote, with half of the 31 percent saying it had a major impact.
To remedy this undemocratic situation, the Liberals promised in the 1993 Red Book to reform the Elections Act by imposing "tough spending rules to ensure that single-issue and special interest groups cannot distort the democratic electoral system." While the Liberals did appeal (unsuccessfully) the challenge of the $1,000 limit on third party spending, they did not keep their promise to solve the problem by amending the Elections Act.
The problem could be solved by extending the principle of "one person, one vote" to this area of electoral participation. This would result in a restriction on third-party spending based upon the actual popular support for the third party. One person would be allowed to spend a limited amount in their riding and the same amount on a national level. Any organization would be allowed to spend the same amount for each member they have in a riding, and the same amount per member on a national level.
For example, if the limit per person was $100, an organization with 100 members in a particular riding and 1,000 members nation-wide would be allowed to spend $10,000 in that riding, and $100,000 on their national campaign. Spending by parties is currently limited in a similarly reasonable way: candidates in each riding can spend a specific amount (about 50 cents) per constituent in their campaign, and for each riding in which a party has a candidate, it can spend the same amount nationally.
Organizations, corporations and unions would have to demonstrate that their members or shareholders supported the spending of funds in a particular way (e.g. to defeat a particular candidate or party, or to promote a specific stand on an issue), before they could spend any money.
Also, as with political donations, money spent on lobbying and advertising (both during and between elections) is subsidized by taxpayers as corporations can deduct these expenses from their taxes. This loophole should be closed. It's bad enough that corporations already pass on the costs of these ad campaigns to consumers through higher prices for products and services.
In addition, corporations should have to disclose their advertising expenses for advocating a particular political view to Elections Canada and the public.
If political parties and riding associations were required to disclose similar expenses in between elections, it would maintain consistency throughout the system, helping to negate Charter challenges to these requirements.
Countries like Canada, which call themselves democracies, should have a political system which ensure equality of access and influence for every person. A good place to start is to ensure that the principle of one person, one vote is upheld throughout the political system, including in the area of third-party spending.