Rules are meant to be broken — or at the very least, loopholes are meant to be found within those rules.
That appears to be the case here in Canada when examining pre-election spending by those looking to gain an advantage in the upcoming federal election.
As we approach a unique point in our country’s relatively young democracy, the first fixed-election date in Canadian history, questions are being asked about pre-election overspending.
According to Elections Canada’s Marc Mayrand, political financing rules did not adjust when the Conservatives made the decision to introduce a fixed election date.
What was generally viewed as a step forward, as Elections Canada can benefit from having more time than ever to plan for the election, has led to a slippery slope for those monitoring pre-election spending.
Since all political parties know well in advance when the election is being called, it has allowed them an unprecedented opportunity to plan their spending in the months leading up to it. Mayrand said the expenses being generated go “beyond the rules outlined in the electoral law.” Loopholes exist in every law — it is just a matter of who finds a way to exploit them most effectively.
In this case, however, the government had an opportunity to close some of those, and in the end, decided not to. Under our election law, expenses incurred during the official campaign are capped. With campaigns organized, in some cases, 12-18 months in advance, timeframes which will likely be extended in an era of fixed election dates, unofficial campaigning is not subject to regulation.
Certainly, the governing party has ample opportunity to exploit the system.
Critics pointed to the advertisements this spring which touted the Universal Child Care Benefits.
Through the plan, cheques are going out to millions of families this month. The government promoted these tax measures even before they were approved in Parliament, and with an election coming up in October, it certainly serves the best interests of the Conservatives to ensure that initiative is well publicized. However, there is also an argument to be made the general public simply needs to know about such initiatives, and have all the information possible about a plan which would greatly impact them. There is a fine line between promoting government policy and promoting the party which is running that government.
That fine line may be blurring, and through the establishment of groups like HarperPAC (political action committees), created in response to left-leaning Engage Canada, has brought the issue of third-party financing out of the shadows.
HarperPAC quickly shuttered its operations, but pre-writ advertising is still taking place, as the right-wing Working Canadians is an example of another group working to sway voters well ahead of the 2015 election.
Canada must steer clear of the model popular in the United States, where PACs carry ability to greatly sway political outcomes while spending small fortunes in the process.
In Canada, these PACs do not have to disclose any financial figures concerning money collected during the pre-writ period, something which must be addressed, before the situation spirals out of control.
The hope is Canadians will be smart enough to see through the efforts of these PACs, realize who they are working for, both on the the left and right sides of the spectrum, and make informed decisions for themselves on election day.
However, we know money talks, carefully crafted attack ads can have a massive impact and often times, those with the most carefully choreographed plans win the day.
But this is our country’s first attempt at a federal fixed-election date. There is certainly time to learn from this process, and ensure the next time we go to the polls as a nation, some of the loopholes currently present in the system are addressed.