Could we limit political advertising between elections?

A Liberal senator wonders if it's time to expand the level playing field?

A worker carries a bench while preparing the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Before Parliament broke for Easter, Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson had an opportunity to defend his bill that would make any advertising expenses committed in the three months before an election subject to election spending limits (ie. If a party spent $3 million on ads in the three months before an election, it would have $3 million less to spend during the election).

Senator Dawson has tabled similar bills before—see here and here—and his last proposal was criticized by Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein, the veteran Conservative fundraiser. The language in the bill was, at that time, said to be overly broad, but there is at least one other catch with the bill—it assumes that we know when the next election will be.

We might think we know, for instance, that the next election will be in October 2015, particularly because the current government once passed a law that was supposed to establish “fixed election dates.” Thing is, the “law” was only ever really a suggestion or a stray thought, insofar as it was not binding. As the Prime Minister demonstrated in 2008, the Governor General can still, acting on the advice of the first minister, dissolve Parliament and call new elections. That means that even in the context of a majority government, an election date is never necessarily fixed.

In the case of a minority government, of course, the date of the next election is also subject to the whim of the opposition parties, who might vote to defeat the government at any time.

This could simply be applied as a known risk—if you want to spend on advertising between elections, you have to account for the possibility that that advertising might end up falling within that three-month window. (Would that though give the governing party, which will always have greater power to dictate election timing, some possible advantage?) Alternatively, I suppose, you could attempt to apply a limit on advertising that covered the entire period between elections, however long that period lasted.

There are various arguments generally mounted against political ads, most particularly in terms of attack ads. And Liberals might moan about what happened to Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff before the writs had ever been dropped, but Senator Dawson also raises an argument that has nothing to do with the actual value of ads.

I would like to present to you the three major principles behind this bill. The first is that the outcome of our elections should not depend on the size of any political party’s coffers. The outcome of our elections should depend on which team and which leader Canadians think have the best ideas for the country.

Elections should be decided through a fair contest of ideas, not through a contest of who can spend the most. This way of doing things, this idea that money is of the utmost importance in election campaigns, is a tradition that the Conservatives are trying to impose on us. The Canadian tradition — and I had the opportunity to talk to Senator Gerstein about John Diefenbaker, with whom, as I have mentioned, I had the opportunity to sit in the other chamber — is that of a level playing field. This is a notion that the Conservatives brought in through the legislation they passed in the 1950s…

Money should not allow a party to monopolize the political discourse. To ensure that political parties have the same opportunity to share their ideas, we should return to the basic underpinnings and spirit of the Canada Elections Act, namely, that parties can use only a limited amount of financial resources to run an election campaign so that every party has an equal opportunity.

The vast majority of Canadians accept that the Canada Elections Act should be based on the principle of a level playing field.

Since the Election Expenses Act of 1974 there have been limits on the amount of money that national campaigns and candidates can spend. In 2011, for instance, any party that fielded 308 candidates could spend up to a maximum of just over $21 million.

If the principle here is that such a limit maintains some degree of fairness and if we agree that that level of fairness is important, the question becomes whether (and how) that principle should be applied to beyond the five weeks of the official campaign. Particularly if, as Senator Dawson laments, we’ve adopted at least some of the idea of the permanent campaign.

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