Being a civic-minded fellow, I decided to take up the invitation and offer my two-cents worth. Below, you'll find the text of a press release I've just issued on my submission, followed by the text of the submission itself.
For Immediate Release
January 27, 2014
Coquitlam Councillor says campaign-spending limits would be unfair and harmful to new and independent candidates
COQUITLAM – City of Coquitlam Councillor Terry O’Neill says the Province should not impose campaign spending limits on civic politicians because such limits would not only constitute an attack on free speech, but could also hurt the electoral chances of new and/or non-affiliated candidates.
In a submission to the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, which is seeking feedback on Local Government Elections Reform, O’Neill says candidates’ fundamental Charter right to freedom of expression would be jeopardized by spending limits, which would have the effect of limiting the number of advertisements, flyers and other forms of promotion that candidates might use during a campaign.
“I do not believe that something as important as an election campaign, which involves two fundamental aspects of our democracy – free elections and free speech, should face the sort of restrictions being considered,” O’Neill says.
O’Neill also fears that new candidates, who face an uphill battle to get their names known, would have one hand tied behind their back if spending limits were imposed.
As well, O’Neill suggests that independent and non-affiliated candidates would be similarly handicapped, because they might lose one of the only options they have— sizeable advertising budgets—to try to level the playing field with slates, parties and other electoral machines that can draw on large numbers of campaign volunteers.
“It’s important that the provincial government give careful consideration to this important area of our democracy,” O’Neill concludes. “Victoria should be wary of any new campaign-spending rules that not only undermine our fundamental rights but also stack the cards in favour of big electoral machines at the expense of new and-or independent candidates.”
CONTACT: Terry O’Neill, 604.362.3251. firstname.lastname@example.org
(Coquitlam Council is meeting Monday Jan. 27 at 2 p.m. and will have only limited breaks until about 9 p.m.)
To: Local Government Elections Reform
Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development
PO Box 9847 Stn PROV GOVT
Victoria, B.C. V8W 9T2
From: Terry O’Neill
Councillor, City of Coquitlam
Home: 1331 Steeple Drive,
Coquitlam, BC, V3E 1K3
Re: Feedback on Expense Limits in Local Elections
If there are to be new campaign-expense rules, I believe that the Task Force’s suggestions are headed in the right direction. However, my submission today will, in fact, oppose the concept of setting campaign-expense ceilings.
Thoughts on some of the Task Force’s major findings:
1. The Province would set expense limits. I agree. If there is to be a mechanism in place, then the Province is the natural place where these should be set.
2. Elections BC would enforce the limits. Again, I agree. This body is already involved in election monitoring, and enforcing campaign-expenditure rules would be a natural extension of its current work.
3. Expense limits would apply in school-board elections. Yes, if there are to be limits, it’s only fair to have them applied to the election of trustees as well as mayors and councillors.
4. Population size would be taken into account in setting expense limits. I agree, but would take it even further. If there are to be limits, they must take into account not only the population of the jurisdiction, but also the physical size. A candidate running for office in a town of 10,000 that is concentrated into one square kilometre would likely have an easier time reaching voters during a campaign that a candidate in a town of 10,000 that is spread over a 100-square-kilometre area. The former might be able to easily hand-deliver flyers, for example, while the latter might have to employ a more expensive delivery method, such as Canada Post.
5. Expense limits would apply not only to candidates, but also elector organizations and third-party advertisers. Again, I am in general agreement with this; if there is to be a new regulatory system, then it seems fair to have it applied to all aforementioned groups.
Philosophical objection to spending limits
Let us now turn our attention to the actual concept of campaign-expense limits. In fact, I oppose any limits. I believe such restrictions would infringe on fundamental freedoms as found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2. I quote:
“Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
- freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- freedom of association.”
Specifically, I believe that any restriction on campaign spending would be a direct attack on Section 2.2, “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media communication.” Allow me to explain: Since the major part on one’s campaign involves communicating with the electorate, and since such communication involves the transmission of thoughts, beliefs, opinions and expressions through the press and other forms of communication such as flyers and posters, a restriction on campaign spending would have the effect of restricting the “fundamental right” of an individual to engage in that communication.
I understand that “reasonable restrictions” to Charter rights have been enacted, but I do not believe that something (an election campaign) that involves two such fundamental aspects of our democracy – free elections and free speech – should face the sort of restrictions being considered in the current exercise.
If a citizen decides to spend her life savings on an advertising campaign to support a civic cause or oppose a candidate, then let it be. If a candidate feels that being elected is so vital that he must take out a second mortgage to pay for a massive advertising campaign, then so be it. What’s important in both cases is that these people have the full and unfettered right to participate in democracy.
Practical objection to spending limits
Here, my objection to campaign-spending limits comprises related issues: unfair obstacles that such limits put in the way of new candidates; unfair obstacles that such limits put in the way of lone or unaffiliated candidates.
First, the new candidate. It’s a given that name recognition plays a large role in all politics, but it is an especially significant factor at the municipal level. For the new candidate, the biggest challenge is not only getting his or her platform in front of voters; it’s also—and, arguably, more importantly—getting his or her name known. Either way, one sure-fire way of presenting oneself to voters is to spend money on advertising, signage and other promotional devices. It’s less important for incumbents to “put their name out there” because they are already relatively well-known. But campaign-spending limits would fetter a new candidate’s ability to spend freely to have his or her name become as well-known as an incumbent’s. Therefore, I submit that campaign-spending limits would have the unintended consequence of diminishing the opportunity for electoral success for newcomers, while favouring incumbents.
Second, the lone or non-affiliated candidate. Consider the situation facing the lone, non-affiliated candidate who is running against a candidate or candidates from a well-organized campaign slate, party or endorsement mechanism such as that regularly employed by labour/union, for example. In all likelihood, that lone candidate does not have an “election machine” supporting his or her candidacy—no supporter lists to work from, and no election-day teams to “get out the vote,” for example. What such a lone candidate would have the ability to do, however, is to match or even exceed the campaign spending of his or her rivals. But if that spending were limited by force of law, that lone candidate would face an unfair restriction on one of the only ways by which he or she might be able to achieve a level playing field.
We need to look deeper into the mechanics of a well-organized party, slate or endorsement body to truly appreciate the advantage they would be given over independent candidates should campaign-spending limits be put in place. Such bodies can attract many volunteers and often have extensive lists of possible supporters for those volunteers to call by phone, contact by email, or send letters to. With voter turnout for municipal elections being relatively low, these well-organized campaigns give their candidates a very tangible edge over any independent candidate.
This situation is both legal and fair under the current system because non-affiliated candidates always have the option to counter the “election machine” they are facing by spending more money on advertisements. That leveler disappears in a universe of campaign-spending limits, however. Such limits would not likely place any limit on the number of volunteers working for parties, slates or endorsement bodies, nor would they place any limit on the amount of hours those volunteers could work. But they would limit the opportunities for non-affiliated candidates to level the field by spending extra funds to buy advertising and otherwise promote their candidacy.
In conclusion, I would argue that a campaign-expense limit would have the unintended consequence of handicapping both new and lone, independent or non-affiliated candidates, while inadvertently giving incumbents and slate- or party-backed candidates an advantage.
Therefore, practically speaking, campaign-expense limitations would be unfair.
The need for timely disclosures
That said, I believe it is also important that the source of the funds being spent during an election campaign be disclosed in a full and timely way. Although the issue of campaign donations is not the subject of this exercise, I believe that there would be less concern over campaign spending if voters were given full and timely information about the source of campaign donations.
On this subject, at present, campaign-expense documents need not be filed until several months after the campaign has ended. I believe that the Provincial Government should examine the feasibility of establishing a real-time, campaign-donation-reporting mechanism to enable voters have access to information on the source of a candidate’s funds before they cast their ballots, not after.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this advice. These are important issues and deserve careful consideration.