The provincial government is asking for public feedback
on proposals to limit campaign spending, and has set the end of this month as a deadline for receiving such feedback. The issue has been generating some headlines of late.
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.
Coquitlam Councillor says
campaign-spending limits would be unfair and harmful to new and independent
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
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.”
(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
Community, Sport and Cultural Development
PO Box 9847
Stn PROV GOVT
City of Coquitlam
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
Thoughts on some of
the Task Force’s major findings:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and
expression, including freedom of the press and other media of
- 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
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.
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
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.