Cap third-party spending on election campaigns

Posted on February 17, 2015 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Editorials – Third-party interest group spending on advertising in the last provincial election was almost $9 million.
Feb 16 2015.   Editorial

Two years ago Ontario’s chief electoral officer, Greg Essensa, asked the province to set up an independent body to find ways of reining in third-party advertising during election campaigns.

He argued persuasively that not having controls is inconsistent with how candidates, constituency associations and political parties are treated. That’s because they all face campaign-period spending limits and third-party interest groups do not.

Essensa was right to be concerned. As the Star argued then, unfettered spending by third-party interest groups — which can outspend political parties and sway election results — isn’t healthy for democracy.

So it’s troubling to learn that not only was no action taken on his report, but the situation is now much more dire. Almost $9 million was spent on advertising by third-party organizations during last spring’s vote, up from $6 million in the 2011 campaign and just $1.8 million in 2007.

Some of the biggest spenders were organizations such as Working Families, which targeted Progressive Conservative candidates; the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association; and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. They spent $2.5 million, $2.1 million and $1.2 million respectively in last spring’s election.

Ontario is increasingly an outlier in refusing to adopt spending controls. Ottawa limits spending during federal campaigns at $188,000 per group. And provinces such as Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick have all adopted controls on third-party advertising.

So why no action? Both opposition parties support measures to control spending, but Premier Kathleen Wynne has not been swayed. Her spokeswoman repeated this week that Ontario already has rules in place to “ensure there is both transparency and free speech in our election campaigns.”

Free speech? How can anyone hear it when it’s being drowned out by the $9 million lavished on advertising by special interest groups?

Wynne needs to rethink her position on third-party advertising and listen up to Essensa. Democracy is at stake.

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