Globe Editorial: “Canada’s increasingly irrelevant election spending laws”

From last week, an editorial posted on the Globe and Mail’s website about the effects of fixed election dates on election finance: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/canadas-increasingly-irrelevant-election-spending-laws/article24650952/

The Globe looks at the trend of political parties and third parties conducting political advertising campaigns long before the start of an official election campaign, and points out that there are currently no laws limiting the amount of money that can be spend on political advertising outside of a campaign period.

The editorial calls for the definition of “election advertising” to be extended a period of time before the campaign period, to limit the amount of money spent in the run up to an election.

This amendment makes perfect sense from the perspective of using election advertising laws to “level the playing field” amongst political actors by extending the limits on how much they can spend. With fixed election dates, the start of a campaign period is known with reasonable certainty and political actors can effectively spend over the election expense limit by incurring unlimited expenses in the days before the campaign period starts. Under the current laws, an advertising blitz that takes place a day before the writ is dropped does not count towards an election expense limit, while the same blitz that takes place on the day the writ is dropped does. This is where the legal distinction is drawn, despite there being little or no distinction in the practical effect of the two.

However, all that being said, all restrictions of political speech must be balanced against their impact on freedom of expression.

Imposing limits on election expenses into a pre-campaign period has already been tried in British Columbia, and have been struck down twice by the BC Court of Appeal as an unconstitutional limit on the freedom of expression:

Reference re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394 (CanLII) – http://canlii.ca/t/ft1n3

British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408 (CanLII) – http://canlii.ca/t/fnh4t

In BC at least, the courts have left little or no room for governments to expand election expense limits into the pre-campaign period.

Canada is heading into a federal election where all the major political parties and numerous third parties are likely to spend a record amount of money on political advertising in the months before the writ is dropped. The political ads running during the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a sign that it has already started in earnest. The experience from the federal election may just start a renewed push for pre-campaign period spending limits, this time coming from the federal government.

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