Liberals’ voting bill needs sharper teeth

Posted on May 14, 2018 in Governance Debates – Opinion
May 13, 2018.   LORI TURNBULL

Lori Turnbull is a fellow at the Public Policy Forum and interim director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.

The Liberal government wants to make some changes to how we vote. If it becomes law, Bill C-76 will increase transparency around the activities of political parties and third parties and will implement measures to make voting more accessible. However, it does not do enough to address the issue of foreign interference in Canadian elections, nor does it level the uneven playing field between political parties and third parties – groups that try to influence elections through advertising but don’t field any candidates.

Even if the bill passes, political parties would continue to be subject to stricter rules than third parties in terms of who can contribute to them and in what amounts. This discrepancy creates an unintended incentive for donors, including foreign entities, advocacy organizations and the wealthy, to dump their money into the pockets of third parties.

“Modernization” is the thematic thrust of the bill. The laws currently on the books fail to account for the fact that times have changed, political communications have gone largely digital and campaigns are literally constant. Traditional forms of political advertising, such as primetime ads, are being replaced or drowned out by microtargeted messages, social media campaigns and clickbait. Because digital media tends to be either low-cost or free, money is no longer a reliable proxy in the regulation of political communications. Further, third-party activity has become increasingly prevalent and complex and its impact is difficult to measure. All in all, the political landscape has shifted and it’s time the law caught up.

To tackle the issue of the never-ending campaign, the proposed legislation would restrict spending for all political entities during the prewrit period before the House is dissolved. This is something that Ontario has done already and that is entirely appropriate, given the tendency of political parties and third parties toward spending sprees before spending limits take effect the moment the writ is dropped.

Also on the plus side, the proposed legislation would close an existing loophole by requiring third parties to report and accept limits on spending incurred from election surveys. Currently, they are not required to do so, but political parties are, which creates an incentive to use third parties to circumvent the limits that apply to political parties. Bill C-76 would also let us shine a brighter light on the election activities of third parties by having them maintain separate bank accounts for their election activities. Many third parties are not just actors in elections, but have other organizational purposes and related expenditures; isolating their election expenses makes accountability and transparency easier.

All of these measures were recommended in a Public Policy Forum (PPF) reportreleased in March. However, to create a more equitable playing field, the PPF report also recommended that third parties follow the same rules that political parties and candidates are held to: that only eligible voters be permitted to make donations to third parties and that all donations be capped at the same total a year (roughly $1,575).

For more than a decade, political parties and candidates have been prohibited from accepting donations from organizations, but third parties can accept these donations in unlimited amounts – even from foreign contributors. Foreign money is not supposed to be used to fund election advertising, but if it is donated outside of the regulated period and simply placed into general revenue, it becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the organization’s funds.

The Liberals have a short runway to get this bill passed before the next election, which might explain why it does not go as far as it should in many respects. Also, the bill leaves out several of the Liberals’ key promises related to election reform, including new rules for political party financing and the creation of an independent commission for leaders’ debates. More drastic measures might have made it less likely that the bill would pass on time, though there is no guarantee that it will meet the deadline in its current form. Opposition critics have already indicated that they feel no responsibility to help the Liberals to fast-track election reforms and the Senate is another wild card altogether. There is already a bill in the Senate that seeks to prohibit foreign influence in Canadian democracy, so we can be sure that the upper chamber awaits Bill C-76 with much interest.

Given the decision to shelve electoral reform, the Liberals needed to put something in the shop window on democratic renewal. Let’s hope that there is more to this story and that, if given a second mandate, the Liberals will take more concrete steps to fortify the integrity of Canadian democracy.

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