Political advertising paid for by independent groups does more good for democracy than bad. So why is Ontario looking to all but get rid of it?


By: Marcel Wieder, Published on Tuesday April 12 2016

In the maelstrom over campaign donations that has hit Ontario, one unintended casualty is the democratic process.

According to various reports, the provincial government plans on introducing severe restrictions on independent expenditures, commonly referred to as third-party campaigns.

This would be a mistake.

Political campaigns are the best time to engage citizens in determining the direction and priorities of our province.

Political parties present their platforms and ideas and voters get to make a choice about which party’s plan they support.

But allowing the established political parties to have a monopoly on the political discourse of the province is unhealthy for democracy.

Not everyone conveniently falls into the existing established political parties. In fact, some have argued that the current system has discouraged participation that has in turn led to lower voter turnout.

The rise of independent expenditure campaigns are a natural and welcome form of engagement.

These groups, which receive no public funding, unlike established political parties, can raise issues, challenge platforms and provide information that can help voters determine for whom they should cast a ballot.

By severely limiting citizen participation through independent expenditure campaigns, the established political parties are decreeing that they are the only vehicles for political participation in the election campaign.

In the case of federal rules, the most that an independent expenditure campaign can spend in an electoral district is $3,000. In Toronto, taking out one ad in a local paper can cost almost as much, making it virtually impossible to get a message out that will have an impact and resonate with voters.

Stephen Harper, when he was head of the National Citizen’s Coalition, fought against such restrictions both publicly and in court. Once in office, he recognized that citizen engagement through an independent expenditure campaign was detrimental to his cause and enacted harsh restrictions.

Today political engagement takes many forms.

Some may opt to participate through established parties but even those are undergoing significant changes.

For example, is a political party with no members still a political party? That is a questions that federal Liberals will face at their annual meeting in Winnipeg in May.

In Canada, third-party campaigns laid the foundation for political change. One wonders how the women’s movement would fair in this environment. Under restrictive independent expenditure campaigns rules issues such as equal rights, daycare and the right to choose would face severe limitations during an election.

Is an election not the right place to discuss these important and relevant issues?

Our democracy would suffer if the established political parties decided to ignore these issues and only focus on the issues that they want to talk about.

Internationally, independent grassroots movements have morphed into political parties. This has happened in Poland with the Solidarity movement, in Ukraine with the Orange Revolution and more recently the Arab Spring. They organized citizens, printed flyers and posters, took to the airwaves and most likely would have broken independent expenditure campaign restrictions being proposed in Ontario.

No one is saying that there shouldn’t be reasonable rules around independent expenditure campaigns in elections.

There should be transparency so that voters know who and how much donors contribute, including real time reporting that political parties are required to perform.

Independent expenditure campaigns should be required to report on what they spend just like any political campaign.

Rules banning any collusion between political parties and independent expenditure campaigns should be in place to ensure that no political party benefits from an independent expenditure campaign.

In addition, independent expenditure campaigns should face spending limits that are similar to those imposed on established political parties. Currently political parties in Ontario may spend 80 cents per eligible voter for a maximum amount of $7.36 million. A reasonable maximum amount for an independent expenditure campaign is 40 cents per eligible voter for a maximum of $3.68 million. Half of what political parties are allowed to spend.

Independent expenditure campaigns do not cost taxpayers one cent and encourage political participation. In the end that strengthens democracy.

Marcel Wieder has worked in federal, provincial and municipal elections since 1974. He is President and CEO of Aurora Strategy Group.

This originally appeared in the Toronto Star.