January 24, 2020

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Opinion

Democracy comes with a price

Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a party rally held in Winnipeg Thursday afternoon. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a party rally held in Winnipeg Thursday afternoon. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/8/2015 (1623 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The current election will be the most expensive in Canadian history, even when the costs of previous elections are adjusted for inflation. In March of this year the chief electoral officer of Elections Canada forecast his agency alone would spend $376 million to conduct the election.

This represented a 38 per cent increase or some $100 million over the cost of running the 2011 election (not accounting for inflation). Those numbers were based on the assumption of a 36-day campaign; a reasonable assumption considering campaigns of five weeks had become the norm. As a result of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to have a 78-day campaign, there will be additional costs for Elections Canada for such items as rental space and staff. In addition, of course, there will be well over $100 million spent by parties and candidates, portions of which are reimbursed from the public purse.

Canada's laws respecting election financing are complicated, but they have two fundamental aims: to prevent wealthy donors from exerting undue influence in the political and policy processes and to ensure a relatively level playing field among political parties and candidates. The following are the main methods used to accomplish these aims: bans or limits on contributions; caps on spending by parties and candidates as well as third parties; public reporting on contributions and expenses; various types of subsidies from the public purse for parties and candidates; monitoring and compliance activities by Elections Canada and the commissioner of elections; and various types of penalties for breaking the financing rules.

Some of the extra costs for the current election were unavoidable. Inflation in the price of goods and services purchased by Elections Canada and the parties/candidates is one example. Another is the creation under the Electoral Boundaries Adjustment Act of 30 new constituencies to reflect population growth, bringing the total number of constituencies to 338.

Other extra costs are a direct result of decisions of the Harper government. An example is the passage of Bill C-23, the controversial Fair Elections Act. There will be significant implementation costs for Elections Canada in terms of putting C-23 into practice. Some of those costs are admirable, such as an extra day for advance voting that will make it more convenient to vote and might help to bring the declining turnout rate up slightly.

A little-noticed and less defensible change under C-23 is a pro-rated increase in the spending limits for parties and candidates if the election period is longer than 36 days. Under the law, there is a minimum of 37 days for an election, but there is no maximum. The fact Harper opted for a 78-day campaign means spending limits for parties/candidates will rise by 114 per cent.

It is impossible to predict with certainty how these developments will affect the actual spending of parties/candidates, but it is generally assumed the advantage goes to the Conservatives because of the party's superior fundraising record. The concept of a level playing field is challenged by these developments, as it was by the earlier decision of the Conservative government to phase out by 2015 the annual per-vote subsidy that was introduced in 2004 to substitute, in part, for the loss of revenue arising from a ban on corporate, trade union and other organizational giving to parties and candidates.

A lengthy campaign adds significantly to the public costs of the election. Under the law, Elections Canada must reimburse 50 per cent of the eligible expenses of parties if they obtain two per cent of the national vote with 338 candidates or five per cent of the vote if they fail to present a full slate. Candidates receive 60 per cent of their eligible expenses if they obtain 10 per cent of the vote in their constituency. The more parties/candidates spend, the bigger the rebates from Elections Canada. In all likelihood, the Conservatives will have the easiest time spending to the limit, they will qualify for the largest rebate, and, if they pace their spending, they can blitz the media in the final weeks of a long campaign when Canadians are just beginning to pay serious attention.

There is a cliché that you cannot put a price on democracy, but in fact we do through a series of laws and administrative actions that involve costs for parties/candidates and for public bodies, mainly Elections Canada.

The costs to Elections Canada for each vote cast have risen from $14.38 in 1974 to $21.13 in 2011. The costs for parties/candidates have risen even more steeply. Our system is admired in other countries for limiting the potential for private wealth to undermine the principle of fair elections. Hopefully we are not headed toward the U.S. model in which spending mountains of private money to influence election results is seen as a form of free speech.

 

Paul G. Thomas is a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Elections Canada advisory board. The opinions in this article are his alone.

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