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James Cowan

The Hon. James  Cowan, Q.C., B.A., LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. Senator James Cowan has greatly influenced the educational and legal communities of Nova Scotia. He was appointed to the Senate on March 24, 2005 by the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.

Statements & Hansard

Bill S-236: An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (election expenses)

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Statement made on 28 May 2009 by Senator Dennis Dawson

Hon. Dennis Dawson:

Honourable senators, I am very pleased today to speak in support of Bill S-236, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act with respect to election expenses.

This bill is very short, just two and a half pages long.

The bill is short and sweet, and I am sure it will receive cooperation from both sides of the house.

I think that we all agree on the principle of this bill: that the outcome of our elections should not and must not depend on the size of any party's coffers.

The outcome of our elections should depend on who Canadians think have the best ideas for their country. This is not just the Canadian way. It is also a way to restore people's faith in parliamentarians and their government.

The present government came to power promising to eliminate the role of big money in politics. The first bill the government presented was the Federal Accountability Act, which honourable senators will recall reduced the contributions that may be made to political parties. Surprisingly, the Federal Accountability Act failed to address the other side of the issue of big money in politics, namely that the money that is spent by political parties must also be controlled. No doubt, this situation was merely an oversight by the Conservative government.

The need for this bill was reinforced when the government brought in its fixed election date legislation. Indeed, one could say this bill before us now is the missing piece of that legislation.

I find myself puzzled as to why Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose not to include these provisions as part of his centrepiece Federal Accountability Act or his Fixed Election Dates Act. I am happy to step up to the plate and fill the significant gap left by those important pieces of legislation.

Bill S-236 simply broadens the definition of "election expenses" to include advertising expenses in the three-month period prior to an election period. The idea behind this bill is very simple. For decades, the Canada Elections Act has imposed limits on the amount parties can spend during election campaigns. The vast majority of Canadians support those limits.

In a poll conducted for Elections Canada in 2000, 93 per cent of respondents said they were in favour of limiting spending by political parties and candidates.

This bill simply says that if a party, candidate or riding association decides to make campaign expenditures shortly before the writs are dropped, those expenditures will be covered by the limits imposed by law. That seems quite reasonable to me, honourable senators.

It should not be possible to circumvent the spending limits prescribed by the Elections Act by carefully choosing when to launch an advertising blitz. That is not how politics should work in our country.

This bill expands the definition of election expenses to include advertising costs and non-monetary contributions incurred by a registered party, electoral association or candidate used directly to promote or oppose a registered party, its leader or a candidate, during the three months before an election, of course.

The bill does not stipulate any advertising spending limit during the pre-election period. A party, association or candidate has the right to spend money. They may spend millions of dollars if they wish. What is different is that they now have to declare it as an expense.

Unlike what the honourable minister said concerning democratic reform, there is no limit whatsoever on freedom of expression. This bill merely includes all expenses incurred by a political party during the three-month period preceding an election as election expenses.

Accordingly, these expenses will be included in the calculation of election spending limits. This bill does not contain any provisions that require public funding. In drafting this bill, we took care to ensure that, although advertising expenses before the issue of a writ are included in the spending limits imposed, they cannot be reimbursed out of public funds. I am pleased to be able to confirm this point.

The bill addresses only the expenses of political parties, riding associations and candidates. It does not affect any third-party advertising.

The premise is precisely what Prime Minister Harper stated as his party's goal: to take big money out of the equation in politics. He took steps already to address the contribution side of this issue. This bill addresses the other side of the coin; namely, the spending of big money to win elections.

I see some of my colleagues on the other side smiling. I think this matter is serious.

The Supreme Court of Canada has said that spending limits set out in Canadian election law "are necessary to prevent the most affluent from monopolizing election discourse." I am sure Prime Minister Harper is familiar with this situation. In the Supreme Court case, Harper v. Canada, Mr. Harpersued the Government of Canada to challenge the spending limits on third parties in an election campaign. Mr. Harper was then Mr. Harper and not the honourable Prime Minister. Mr. Harper lost his case. As the saying goes, Canada, one; Mr. Harper, zero. The spending limits were upheld by Canada's highest court.

Previously, political advertising only occurred after the writ of election was issued. I believe that is generally still the case in the provinces.

We have noted a change on the federal scene in recent years. Consequently, it is clear that the spending limits established by the Canada Elections Act, which apply only to the official election period, no longer reflect the reality of political advertising campaigns.

In 2007, a year when we did not have an election, the Conservative Party of Canada declared advertising expenses of $4.2 million. And that was not an election year! That amount was 42 per cent of the amount spent by the same party on the 2005-2006 election campaign.

Professor W.T. Stanbury, well known for his work on the Lortie Commission, called this an "extraordinary" level of spending.

Obviously, we find ourselves in a new world in Canadian federal politics!

This new interest in advertising outside election periods is the direct result of the introduction of fixed election dates. Now that all parties know, at least in theory, when the next election will take place, they can begin campaigning months ahead. Therefore, spending limits for the election period are irrelevant if there are no limits placed on the parties in the weeks before the election is called.

Indeed, our former Chief Electoral Officer, the eminent Jean-Pierre Kingsley, alerted parliamentarians to this potential problem when he appeared in 2006 before the committee in the other place. The committee was studying the then-proposed fixed election date law. Mr. Kingsley suggested to committee members that fixed election dates could carry with them the need to regulate advertising by the government and by political parties before the actual writ period.

At that time, frankly, it appeared that there was no need to provide for such regulation in Canada. It was an American custom to advertise and campaign many months before an election. It simply was not done in Canadian politics. In Canada, in the past, governments focused on governing when they were in power, not on perpetual election campaigning.

To use one of Prime Minister Harper's favourite words, "obviously" times have changed. The argument made by the government in support of its fixed election date law was well expressed by my colleague and friend, Senator Di Nino, in his speech supporting second reading of that bill. Senator Di Nino said:

While there were minor differences on some details of the bill, I was struck by the fact that all parties supported the fundamental rationale of the bill. I believe they all shared a view that elections belonged first and foremost to the people of Canada, the electorate, and that no party should be permitted to exploit the timing of an election to benefit the party's electoral fortunes.

These are great words.

All parties also agreed with the principle that the timing of elections should not be left to the Prime Minister —"

Something has happened since then, but that is another issue.

— but should be set in advance so that all Canadians will know when the next election will occur. This knowledge will help erode the scepticism and cynicism Canadians have shown in recent years towards politics and politicians."

We know what happened with the fixed election issue.

I am sure Senator Di Nino will agree that the same concerns provide support to my bill. No party should be able to exploit the timing of an election to benefit the party's fortunes by engaging in an advertising free-for-all blitz campaign immediately prior to visiting the Governor General or conversely, for the opposition, prior to launching a non-confidence motion. This spending goes against the fundamental premise of campaign spending limits.

At least, as provided in the bill before us now, spending should be counted against the spending limits prescribed in the Canada Elections Act. I hope that just as all parties supported the principle of the fixed election bill, so will all parties support my bill.

Also, honourable senators, in December 2006 Senator Milne asked the then Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, Rob Nicholson, about the comment of former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley when Mr. Nicholson appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the fixed election dates bill. Senator Milne asked whether any consideration had been given to the suggestion of expanding the restrictions on advertising to a period prior to the issuance of the writ.

Mr. Nicholson noted that the fixed election dates bill did not address that issue and took it "as a representation and a matter that perhaps we should look into." Tell that to the new Minister of State for Democratic Reform.

That exchange took place two and a half years ago, and I am disappointed to say that nothing else was heard from the government. I am confident that the government will now welcome this bill as a response that no doubt they were planning to present to Senator Milne and to Canadians.

Honourable senators, Canadian citizens are becoming increasingly cynical about politics and their politicians. Voter turnout in the last election, one of the lowest ever, is proof of that. We must have elections that are won by ideas and not by money. This is a step we must take to restore the confidence of Canadians in their parliamentary system.

Many Canadians are shaking their heads; their cynicism is confirmed in light of the attacks on my bill already launched by none other than the Conservative Minister of State for Democratic Reform. His response to my bill as described by Joan Bryden of the Canadian Press in an article that appeared in numerous newspapers across the country on May 27 was to "slam" this bill as "anti-democratic" and "un-Canadian."

This response, I am sorry to tell honourable senators, is the level of discourse of our country's Minister of State for Democratic Reform — repeat after me: democratic reform. His response was to reject an outright honest proposal to amend our election act, and to hurl the epithets of "anti-democratic" and "un-Canadian." I do not need to take lessons or advice on democracy from a minister whose Prime Minister violated his own fixed election law a couple of months ago.

Me, un-Canadian: I am reminded of the words of the English essayist Samuel Johnson who observed that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Honourable senators, clearly we have a Minister of State for Democratic Reform who is not seriously interested in democratic reform unless it is his reform. Does he not understand the principles of parliamentary democracy? While I am reluctant to dignify his unworthy attacks with a response, I must say that I believe my bill is as Canadian as maple syrup. The values and principles it reflects are precisely the values and principles of our own Canada Elections Act; that elections are not a free-for-all to be won by whoever throws the most money around. The Canadian way is to respect statutory limits on campaign spending.

My bill simply says political parties cannot evade the statutory limits with a massive advertising blitz immediately before the election period. Advertise all they want, but the spending limits will apply if the ads are bought within three months prior to the election.

I do not often quote Minister John Baird, but today I shall. In introducing the election financing amendments of his government's Accountability Act, then Treasury Board President Baird said: "In a nutshell, Part 1 of the act will significantly reduce the influence of money in politics."

Canadians have seen that it is not enough to address the contributions to political parties. Both the money that is raised by a party and the money that is spent are equally critical to reduce significantly the role of money in politics.

I hope colleagues on both sides of this chamber will join me in supporting second reading of this bill so we move it into committee, provide Canadians with an opportunity to participate in our debate and maybe educate Minister Fletcher at the same time; and tell us what they think of this proposal. In the words of Minister Baird, "reduce the influence of money in politics."

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