Commentary

A Canadian Import We Don’t Want

By Patrick Basham
This essay was distributed nationally by Scripps Howard News Service.
Canada’s recent national election serves as a cautionary tale for Americans who believe campaign finance reform will solve their political problems.

Canada has gone a long way down the reform path, and the results are surely not what reformers in America would hope.

U.S. reformers want to reduce spending on campaigns. In Canada, miserly spending limits apply both to parties and to individual candidates. The spending restrictions on individual candidates for the 301 parliamentary seats averaged just $43,000. According to Jean-Pierre Kingsley, chief electoral officer of Canada, such “limits on election expenses for parties and candidates are an essential element in our electoral system because they foster participation.”

But participation isn’t the same as competition. Political scientists know that spending limits prevent a challenger from buying publicity and thus overcoming the inherent advantages of incumbency, such as name recognition.

Indeed, an analysis of Canada’s election results finds that only 22 incumbents lost their seats, one-third fewer than the number defeated in the previous election in 1997.

U.S. campaign reform advocates also argue that spending limits reduce the volume and intensity of negative advertising. In truth, lacking money, politicians spend nearly all of it on negative attacks. This Canadian election was the most negative and disingenuous in memory.

Such tactics ensured that the campaign ended with one in five voters still undecided due to widespread disinterest and disgust at the issue-less, invective-driven campaign. In Canada’s National Post, historian Michael Bliss wrote: “Melancholic Canadians will trudge to the polls on Monday, listlessly, to vote for the least offensive option … Many citizens will not vote at all. Nobody will feel good about the 2000 election campaign. We are in the last days of an exercise in the politics of cynicism and irrelevance.”

Americans are told that their less regulated system fosters low voter turnout. But according to Elections Canada (our FEC), the highly regulated Canadian election saw voter turnout tumble to its lowest level ever.

Heavy regulation of broadcasters is also a vital part of the American campaign finance reform agenda. During the course of the Canadian campaign every broadcaster was forced to allow the parties to purchase (at the lowest available commercial rate) up to 390 minutes of airtime. To make matters worse, this restricted amount of airtime was allocated among the five major parties based largely on their performance in the 1997 election - an arrangement that constitutes nothing more than an “Incumbents Protection Act.” The eventual winner, the center-left Liberal party, received 113 minutes on the air, almost twice as much as their main competitor, the conservative Canadian Alliance party. Unsurprisingly, only 36 percent of defeated incumbents were Liberals.

American campaign reformers want more regulations and restrictions on independent groups outside the established parties and mainstream candidates. The Canadian Elections Act clamps down on individuals or groups with the audacity to enter the political debate. For example, limits on spending for issue advertising by such groups made effective national advertisements impossible. The law also prevents non-partisan groups from disparaging or promoting any candidate. Whatever their intent, these restrictions protect the established Canadian parties and candidates from competition by grassroots campaigns.

Canada’s campaigns accurately reflect its paternalistic political culture, but the consequences are substance-free, cynical elections that turn off voters while trampling their rights and freedoms. Campaign reform is a Canadian import Americans don’t want.

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government.