Ontario should limit ‘third party’ election spending
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – Elections Ontario head Greg Essensa makes a good case for reigning in third party interest group advertising during provincial campaigns.
Apr 11 2013. Editorial
A gaping loophole in Ontario’s election finance rules allows so-called “third party” interest groups to dodge campaign spending limits. They’re increasingly using this lack of oversight to outspend bona fide political parties and sway the results of a vote. And that isn’t healthy for democracy.
By way of a remedy, Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa has asked the province to set up an independent body to find ways of reigning in third-party advertising. Reforms would ideally include spending limits, contribution caps, tighter reporting requirements and some anti-collusion provisions.
The need for such change is pressing and so obvious that it should be delivered with a minimum of bureaucratic dithering and delay.
In his annual report earlier this week, Essensa noted that third-party organizations — mainly unions and related groups — spent more than $6 million on advertising in the 2011 provincial election. That’s more than triple the $1.8 million such organizations shelled out for the 2007 vote.
The biggest-spending third party, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, lavished $2.6 million on its effort to defeat the Progressive Conservatives. To put this in some context, even the New Democratic Party didn’t spend that much. In fact, it exceeded the combined advertising spending of 19 of Ontario’s 21 registered political parties.
In short, third party organizations now rival mainstream registered political parties in advertising clout. Fairness demands that they come under more scrutiny and regulation.
“The current rules for third parties are inconsistent with how other political entities are treated,” wrote Essensa. “Candidates, constituency associations and political parties are all subject to annual and campaign reporting requirements, as well as campaign period spending limits and annual and campaign contribution limits.”
These regulations are meant to provide some semblance of a level playing field in the political arena. They limit the degree to which money can be used to influence the electorate. But this intended fairness is distorted as long as third parties are exempt from similar restrictions.
Unions and others with a case to put before the public mustn’t be silenced at election time. They have a right to express their views, and to spend money in order to do so. But this right must be framed by limits in keeping with how other political players are treated.
Essensa notes that Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick and the federal government have all adopted controls over third-party advertising. And, in a rare display of agreement, the parties at Queen’s Park have signaled their openness to reform.
Being on the receiving end of a sizable interest group onslaught, the Tories have long pressed for action. But NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also favours a look at third-party spending limits as part of a wider examination of election finance rules, and Premier Kathleen Wynne has said she is willing to consider Essensa’s recommendations.
Given all that, there’s no acceptable excuse to maintain the status quo. Queen’s Park needs to turn off the lights and declare the party over when it comes to unfettered third-party election spending.
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