How partisan Conservative ads undermine the rule of law

Posted on December 23, 2014 in Governance Debates – Globe Debate
Dec. 22 2014.   Errol Mendes

Errol Mendes is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa and editor-in-chief of the National Journal of Constitutional Law.

In what country does a government take tax revenues and use it to pump out continuous government propaganda that tries to brainwash the citizens with its performance, whether truthful or not? Many would suggest China, Russia or even Zimbabwe. Sadly, it is also true in the Canada governed by the Stephen Harper Conservatives.

The opposition parties have claimed that the Harper government has authorized more than $600-million in disguised partisan ads since coming into office. These include some earlier Economic Action Plan television ads, and the newest ones announcing the yet-to-be implemented family tax benefits package – outrageously partisan.

When these ads announce that it will fill the pockets of taxpayers with thousands of dollars, it’s a less-than-honest exhortation for viewers to vote Conservative in the upcoming 2015 election. There will, no doubt, be far more honest ads paid for by the Conservative Party with the same content once the election campaign starts and its spending will be restricted to far less than the millions that may be spent on it before the campaign actually starts.

Governments are allowed to advertise about services and programs that they are implementing, but when some of them are either untruthful, promote partisan positions or are not even authorised by Parliament, it becomes a vehicle to undermine the foundations of any democracy that values the spirit and letter of the rule of law.

Former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty realized the democratic immorality of abusing public funds in such a manner and brought in key reforms to stop even his government from betraying the public trust by ensuring taxpayers do not fund disguised partisan ads. The McGuinty government brought in rules that requires all government ads to be reviewed and passed by the auditor-general. The holder of that office has the ability to stop clear partisan ads being funded by the taxpayer. The present national ads for the family benefits tax package would have been stopped dead in their tracks if we had a similar screening process of government ads at the federal level, especially given that they were not even passed by Parliament. Yet, it is reported that the Harper government may spend $100-million for these ads in the hope that it will give them another four years to continue abusing the public purse with similar ads after the 2015 election.

It may not be surprising that Mr. Harper has engaged in this unfair democratic subterfuge. Even back in 2000, while heading up the National Citizens Coalition, he launched court actions against the spending limits of third parties under the Canada Elections Act. With a challenge that seemed to ignore the need for ensuring electoral fairness, his conservative advocacy group used the argument of citizens’ freedom of speech to ask the courts to strike down limits on third-party funding beyond a $150,000 limit during the election campaign. He failed when the Supreme Court lectured him and his group that the law was needed for electoral fairness and a level playing field in order to prevent certain groups or individuals from dominating the media and the electoral process.

Now in government – and outside the electoral period – Mr. Harper has found a way for his government to flood the media with partisan propaganda to the tune of hundreds of millions of our dollars. If such democratic subterfuge has the same effect of unfairness before an election, then the Harper government is clearly undermining the spirit of the rule of law critical to fair elections. He has, in effect, made the government a third party that is allowed to spend potentially millions of dollars, making the actual limits in the election period illusory to some extent. This deserves a profound rebuke by Canadians. >

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