Is it time to talk about limits on political advertising, legislated or voluntary?
Late yesterday, the Senate held second reading of a bill to limit spending on political ads -- outside the election-campaign period. It's Senator Dennis Dawson's bill, and I'll put some of his speech, and the elements of his proposed legislation, at the end of this post.
This is an issue that has particular significance at this very moment. We're not in an election yet, so Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and everyone else are absolutely free to blow thousands, millions of dollars on advertising. Once a campaign starts, probably this weekend, they will all be subject to the same limits.
Some people are expressing worries that the Conservatives will deliberately delay going to the Governor-General's residence so that they can have a few more days to bombard the airwaves with their no-limit ads.
I'm wondering if this whole business of negative ads, in between elections, could be a sleeper issue for a political party. The Green Party thinks so. Would Canadians be keen to see an end to these things?
Apparently the TV networks used to have a rule against running political ads between elections -- a rule that's obviously been abandoned. (I learned this from Robin Sears, who was talking on Cross-Country Checkup a few weeks back; have not seen anything written about it.) Meanwhile, Advertising Standards Canada, in the last election campaign, gently reminded Canadians that political parties are exempt from the voluntary code that governs private-sector advertising. (Which is why you don't see Tim Hortons running ads attacking the patriotism of Starbucks customers.) Maybe a political party or two might want to opt in to the standards? As a gesture of good faith/integrity?
Any outright ban on negative ads would probably collide with Charter rights over freedom of expression. Senator Dawson's bill doesn't propose a ban -- he just wants those outside-campaign ads to be included in the legislated limits on advertising during election campaigns. Here's basically how it would work, according to the backgrounder:
Bill S-227 would amend the Canada Elections Act to address advertising expenses incurred by a registered political party during a 3-month period immediately prior to a general election campaign. The Bill would bring those expenses within the definition of an “election expense”, so that they are counted against the limits imposed on party advertising during an election. It would not ban political party advertising, nor would it affect in any way third party advertising. While the expenses would count for purposes of election spending limits, they would not be eligible for reimbursement by taxpayers. Thus, there is no draw on public funds.
And here's a sampling of what Sen. Dawson had to say about his bill during yesterday's debate in the red chamber. The bill doesn't have a hope in heck of getting through before the next election, but maybe for next time??
Clearly, if a party can engage in an advertising free-for-all blitz campaign immediately prior to visiting the Governor General, there is a loophole in the current legislature....
For decades now, political parties have always waited the election call before launching their official campaign. But now, the Conservatives are trying to impose on Canadians permanent campaigning the same way it is done in the United States.... The Canadian way is to debate ideas, not to throw money around all year long to try to discredit your opponents. The Canadian way is also to work and govern between each election, not to spend most of your time campaigning against the other political parties. Canadians are expecting their parliamentarians to develop and work on legislature, not on electoral ads on a permanent basis. The core question of this debate is the following: Do we want to be in permanent electoral mode as the Conservatives are trying to do, or do we want to preserve the Canadian tradition of having fair elections, where ideas prevail over money?