A Canadian Import We Don’t Want

This essay was distributed nationally by Scripps Howard News Service.
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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 surelynot what reformers in America would hope.

U.S. reformers want to reduce spending on campaigns. In Canada, miserlyspending limits apply both to parties and to individual candidates. Thespending restrictions on individual candidates for the 301 parliamentaryseats averaged just $43,000. According to Jean-Pierre Kingsley, chiefelectoral officer of Canada, such "limits on election expenses for partiesand candidates are an essential element in our electoral system because theyfoster participation."

But participation isn't the same as competition. Political scientists knowthat spending limits prevent a challenger from buying publicity and thusovercoming the inherent advantages of incumbency, such as name recognition.

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

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

Such tactics ensured that the campaign ended with one in five voters stillundecided due to widespread disinterest and disgust at the issue-less,invective-driven campaign. In Canada's National Post, historian MichaelBliss wrote: "Melancholic Canadians will trudge to the polls on Monday,listlessly, to vote for the least offensive option ... Many citizens willnot vote at all. Nobody will feel good about the 2000 election campaign. Weare in the last days of an exercise in the politics of cynicism andirrelevance."

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

Heavy regulation of broadcasters is also a vital part of the Americancampaign finance reform agenda. During the course of the Canadian campaignevery broadcaster was forced to allow the parties to purchase (at the lowestavailable commercial rate) up to 390 minutes of airtime. To make mattersworse, this restricted amount of airtime was allocated among the five majorparties based largely on their performance in the 1997 election - anarrangement that constitutes nothing more than an "Incumbents ProtectionAct." The eventual winner, the center-left Liberal party, received 113minutes on the air, almost twice as much as their main competitor, theconservative Canadian Alliance party. Unsurprisingly, only 36 percent ofdefeated incumbents were Liberals.

American campaign reformers want more regulations and restrictions onindependent groups outside the established parties and mainstreamcandidates. The Canadian Elections Act clamps down on individuals or groupswith the audacity to enter the political debate. For example, limits onspending for issue advertising by such groups made effective nationaladvertisements impossible. The law also prevents non-partisan groups fromdisparaging or promoting any candidate. Whatever their intent, theserestrictions protect the established Canadian parties and candidates fromcompetition by grassroots campaigns.

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

Patrick Basham

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