Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Per-vote subsidies to blame for attack ads, lack of substance

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Like many Canadians, I find most of the political party television commercials to be offensive. All parties are guilty. A great deal of TV time is used to try to smear the other parties and their leaders, rather than sending a positive message as to why the voter should support the party that paid for the ad. Pictures of the leader of the other party are as prevalent as pictures of the leader of the sponsoring party. When I was in politics, we would just about die to see our photo on prime-time television. Today, our opponents publish it at no cost to ourselves.

Most of the ads do not tell us what the election is all about. They do not identify what policies are being fought for, or why we should vote for one party as opposed to another. In past years, before political parties were publicly financed, elections had a theme citizens could identify.

Way back, it was socialism versus free enterprise; a planned economy versus laissez faire. Diefenbaker fought Pearson on the acceptance by Canada of nuclear weapons. Tommy Douglas chose to make an issue of the war in Vietnam and stood alone, thereby attracting voters of parties other than his own. Trudeau seized on Canadian unity and made his Liberal party the only one that opposed special status for Quebec. Mulroney fought Turner on free trade. In each of those elections, voters had the advantage of knowing what they were voting for.

Now, particularly if we depend on the TV commercials, things are different.

What has changed? Since the financing of political parties, politics are no longer run by politicians, at least at the advertising level.

I can remember when prominent people in a political party would sit together for weeks arguing about what would go into the messages to be disseminated in one form or another.

TV ads were few and far between, mostly because of the cost. We had to depend on formulating a policy that would attract public support. Attacking your enemies was not enough. We took special care not to use the names of our opponents in public print or television. Publishing the picture of our opponent on television would have been labelled insanity. We didn't have money to waste on frivolous advertising. We had to say something meaningful.

And without subsidies or financial resources as great as other parties, we didn't do badly. NDP governments were elected in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia and Ontario without the benefit or handicap of public financing. Public financing has not improved the NDP electoral success and it can be argued public financing has impaired its ideological conviction.

The public financing has proved to be a bonanza for party bureaucracies.

For example, the Bloc Québécois gets roughly $3 million a year for its operations and there is nothing to prevent it from storing some of it away to use in an election campaign. The NDP gets about $5 million a year. This comes out of general revenues so that Canadians are required to finance separatism and other "isms" they oppose.

The entire political process has been irreparably impaired by this incestuous entry by the state into the inner sanctums of political parties.

Now, insofar as media advertising is concerned, the message is not made by politicians. Each party engages advertising agents whose expertise is generally centred on selling soap, not on public policy. This development is directly attributable to the root of all evil -- money.

The Conservatives have at least one important policy plank they should make better use of -- namely the elimination of public financial support for political parties. Let those who believe in them finance them.

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2011 A21

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