Why Canadians should spend more money—not less—on elections - Macleans.ca

Why Canadians should spend more money—not less—on elections

Limits on campaign expenses do the opposite of what is intended, giving the advantage to the well-known and the politically connected

(CP photo)

(CP photo)

If Canadians ever wonder why some of our elections seem so devoid of competition, including over ideas, we just received an example again from five by-elections. They took place on Monday—two in Ontario, one in Quebec and two in Alberta. The candidates were themselves subject to the usual, cheap spending limits imposed by the federal government.

As an example, consider Markham-Thornhill in Ontario, the only truly contestable riding among the five by-elections (the Liberal, Mary Ng, won by 2,300 votes; the other ridings had lopsided results). There, a candidate could spend $106,902 trying to get elected. With 69,838 eligible voters, that’s $1.53 per potential voter.

In addition, if a candidate was attached to a political party, the party could spend $91,020. (A party with candidates in all five by-elections and with total allowable expenses of $455,102 could theoretically spend all that in one riding; let’s assume the money was spent equally in all.)

That $91,020 equates to another $1.30 per eligible voter, or $2.83 in total. The numbers are similar for the other four ridings. In general elections, the limits on what candidates and parties can spend per voter will vary depending on the campaign’s length and a riding’s geography, but not by much.

RELATED: Tories, NDP give Liberals a fight in federal Ontario byelections

As Elections Canada notes, the usual justification for expense restrictions is to “facilitate a level playing field among candidates.” To be fair, the agency is following the Canada Elections Act, so the problem originates with successive federal governments that wrote and kept the legislated limits—in effect, gag laws on political expression during election campaigns.

This “level playing field” defence is nonsense. Limits on campaign expenses do the opposite of what is intended; they give the advantage to the well-known and the politically connected.

For example, suppose one candidate in a riding has significant name recognition and the backing of an established political party. To impose election expense limits on another candidate, an unknown independent, is to handicap the possibility for an upset victory. The only way to overcome that disadvantage is to raise and spend much more money in an effort to become known. Our federal election legislation instead squelches such potential political competition.

Then there is the issue of limits on so-called “third parties,” a pejorative label for Canadians who might care to participate in elections by promoting ideas and policies as opposed to working through political machines. Those citizens’ groups have much lower spending limits under federal law. In the recent by-elections, such groups were prevented from spending more than $4,164 per riding. That amount might pay for a few thousand flyers and some social media ads. It was also less than four cents per voter in Markham-Thornhill, for example.

Voters who might care about the environment, taxes, small business or any number of conceivable issues and interests, and who wish to band together with others to promote their issue, are in essence told by the political class to sit down and be quiet; Canadians are told to leave elections to the political professionals—the parties, candidates and machines. The current federal law thus shields incumbents and the politically well connected; it also asphyxiates the free flow of ideas during elections.

At the core of all this ostensible concern about “too much money” spent on campaigns is the vague notion that “big money” would otherwise buy politicians and government policy.

Here, some might point to the supposed negative example of American politics where billions are spent in presidential elections. The insinuation is that the more money spent, the more potential exists for corruption.

Fact check: Corruption, clearly defined, is when a politician or civil servant accepts a bribe to change a law, or to award an undeserved contract. It is not when candidates and parties accept money to run campaigns—money which is necessary to reach tens of thousands of voters in a riding, or tens of millions of people in a general election campaign.

As long as donor names are disclosed, it is then subsequently clear if a politician or government later does something to favour an earlier donor and in a way not supported by the facts of a matter.

RELATED: The top 10 third-party spenders of the 2015 election campaign

As for American spending on elections, the oft-heard claim of corruption—again, linked simply to spending on elections and not actual corrupt practices—is mistaken.

Take one of the more expensive presidential campaigns in recent history, the 2012 contest between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and former president Barack Obama. Romney’s campaign spent $992 million in the attempt to reach the White House; Obama’s side spent $985 million to win.

Such figures are often quoted as evidence that American electioneering should be reined in, Canadian-style. But that misreads the math. With a population of 315 million in 2012, and 215 million eligible voters, the Romney campaign spent $4.61 per potential voter with the Obama camp expending three cents less, $4.58.

In contrast, that same year, Americans spent $19 billion or $60.25 per American, on pet food for dogs and cats. Or divide the $19 billion by eligible voters and the figure is $88.37. That is 19 times the amount spent by each party, per voter, to win presidential votes in 2012. To allege that American parties spent too much on their presidential election in 2012, or any other year, one has to believe that spending a fraction of pet food expenses to reach 200-plus million people is unwarranted. Or that such spending is “excessive” even though outlays on other items—“Fido” and “Missy”—is significantly higher.

Back to Canada. The notion that candidates, political parties and citizens’ groups should be limited to $1.53, $1.30 and four cents per voter, respectively, sends this message from the political class to Canadians: In our liberal democracy, election expenses per voter cannot exceed the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Or for those who wish to advocate for ideas independent of a party—don’t spend more than a nickel.


Mark Milke is the author of Tax Me I’m Canadian: A Taxpayer’s Guide To Your Money and How Politicians Spend It. Follow him on Twitter at @MilkeMark.



Why Canadians should spend more money—not less—on elections

  1. It’s a bit misleading to look at just the presidential spend when comparing Canadian and American elections. There’s also all that spending to buy… er… elect senators and congresspeople. And if you think the donations by corporations and the wealthy have no strings attached, you’re fooling yourself.

    Is there room to allow for bigger donations and bigger campaign spends in Canada? Yes. Are there other reforms we can make? Yes. Do we want to model ourselves after our southern neighbours? Absolutely not.

    As democracies go, America is a complete disaster. And quite possibly on its last legs as a democracy, as a sizeable chunk of their populace seem hellbent on creating an autocracy. Or an oligarchy. Pretty much anything other than a democracy.

    Find a better yardstick to measure us against.

  2. Keithbram took the words right out of my mouth: allow bigger donations, make other reforms (e.g., eliminate pay-to-play whether or not we know who attended that last $1500-a-plate dinner), and find another yardstick to measure us against.

    We don’t even have to look at the disaster south of the 49th parallel, in my opinion, to find an example of how a lack of contribution limits and allowing corporate and union contributions when there are no such limits can lead to widespread corruption. British Columbia is a prime example.

    However, to think that we will ever eliminate the “who you know” and “who knows you” impact in our daily lives is far-fetched–much more so in politics–although I’d love to find ways to do so. From my observations of human nature in many different environments, I’ve decided that meritocracies cannot exist, as much as we would hope.

  3. The only time elections are won by spending more money than the next guy is when neither candidate has anything important to say. Raising spending limits would of course not help the small guy or new guy, since the established guy will always have access to deeper pockets anyway. Spending limits simply reduce the amount of annoying propaganda we’re subject to during elections. Grass roots electioneering involving volunteers knocking on doors. This doesn’t cost much, and that’s really where the rubber hits the road when a candidate has something important to say. Mr. Milke should go back to playing with his calculator and thinking up a catchy title for his next silly idea.

  4. As SJ Dunn, suggested the writer should spend some time taking a look at BC where political corruption is rampant. Not only has our Premier had a series of pay-for-a-look dinners for “smiley face,” but it has been obvious that those that contribute the most have also gotten the gov’t contracts. Now “smiley face” has a war chest that is many times her opponents, and it will quite likely get a lot bigger before the election in May. The only way the NCP can win is if the population in general has had enough of the corruption and pay back to corporations for their large donations.
    The writer should have read George Monbiot’s column in the GUARDIAN, in which he simplified the whole voting process by suggesting that the only way that a party could raise money was from dues (perhaps as high as $50) paid by those joining that party. No other ways and means would be acceptable. Close control could be kept by an independent group, “Elections Canada” in our case. In other words, he who has the greater number of members would likely form the government. This would not stop third parties from winning a riding, but it would stop all the BS and corruption that you see in our province of BC.

  5. First, some facts. Marketers have revealed that advertising is hugely expensive nowadays (e.g. $200 to $2,000 to get a real estate client, $300 to get a consultancy client, $70 per person convinced to try a different brand of toothpaste). By real world standards, Milke is entirely correct that the amount spent on election campaigns is relatively small.
    That does great damage to our democracy, because it means the advertisers – the politicians and their parties – only have enough money to advertise small sound bites and attack ads. The funding limits prohibit them from developing more in-depth information programs, and this is bad for Canada.
    Yet the other comments posted here, vehemently disagreeing with Mr. Milke, carry a lot of truth too. The present First-Past-The-Post voting system exacerbates the problem of how to fairly and adequately fund political campaigns. Giving a per-vote subsidy to parties under FPTP involves the same extreme bias against small parties as the bias against their election. If we had proportional representation to fairly represent voters, then a significant public subsidy to parties based on their votes received would be a reasonable substitute for donations by individuals (and special interest groups provincially), and would have reduced bias against small parties.
    Considering the federal government administers over a trillion dollars of expenditures between elections, we should not cheap out on the cost of discussing and electing the best and most representative government possible.