Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Are elections perverted by money?

Thanks for the feedback on the question of "Is there too much money in politics?" Keep it coming, please. I would first like to correct an obvious error I made, pointed out by Jass, regarding how the Supreme Court might have ruled if the appellant and respondent had been reversed. I stated that they were deferring to Parliament's way of defining electoral fairness. That is incorrect.

From the text of the dissent comes this: "Common sense dictates that promoting electoral fairness is a pressing and substantial objective in our liberal democracy, even in the absence of evidence that past elections have been unfair." There is no reason to believe that if it was Democracy Watch asserting this objective (and their interpretation of it), in defiance of Parliament, that the ruling would have been any different.

But back to the money = speech issue. Consider the following two statements:
1) Money is speech, and restricting the former necessarily means restricting the latter
2) The more money you have, the more of a voice you have

Jass believes these are two statements of the same principle. I do not believe that is the case. When money and thus speech are restricted, you are denying people or groups the ability to say their piece in the manner they so choose. The second statement equates the quantity of speech to its quality or effectiveness. As I said in the original post, this relationship is not linear, or even mathematical.

More money means the ability to reframe, rework, and repeat your message. It does not assure effectiveness - but just because there's no linear correlation is not in itself a reason to restrict my fundamental freedom to speak in the manner (or frequency) I see fit. I don't think that's splitting hairs, either - some might disagree.

Greg (and the Monger, kind of) brings up the 1988 Free Trade election as an example of the need for spending restrictions. Which is interesting, because I was going to bring it up as an example of why such restrictions are a terrible idea.

I have a decent recollection of that election campaign. I was 15, and did a project on it for Social Studies 10 (summarizing platforms, visual aids, etc.). Three months previous, I had never heard of Mel Hurtig, Maude Barlow, or Bob Whyte, but I got a quick and comprehensive introduction to them thanks to the free-trade debate. I won't claim to recall who had more and better ads, but I certainly recall that there were a lot of TV/radio spots and full-page newspaper ads from all sorts of groups on both sides of the issue. The Business Council on National Issues, Concerned Citizens Coalition, the Canadian Auto Workers, etc. etc. - even the most barely curious voter would have had absolutely no trouble getting information and opinion on free trade from a cavalcade of sources.

Of course, this could not happen in 2004. The Canadian Auto Workers would have to donate to the NDP or Liberals (what? major restrictions as well? Oh), or rely on friendly media to attend to them and pass on their message unchallenged. I simply cannot fathom why this is fairer or more democratic.

Again, I ask, where is the evidence that the '88 election was swayed by the quantity of advertising by big business? Why would it have been pressing and substantial to limit both their speech and that of the unions, in the name of fairness?

I guess that brings me to my last point, regarding the media. The second sentence in the Charter says that Canadians have the freedom of the press and other media of communication. It makes no mention of "impartial", or "balanced", or even "wise" for that matter. So I fail to see why on earth the proprietors and employees of newspapers and broadcasters should be afforded freedoms that ordinary citizens are not, simply by virtue of their scale. Is there a "fairness" difference between Andrew Coyne endorsing the Conservatives on the front page of the National Post, and me buying an ad in the same space saying the same thing?

Most of us, including the Supreme Court, have not addressed this blatant contradiction, presumably because we see large media as relatively unbiased and benign (or at least, close enough). But many would dispute this notion, and regardless, why should a claim of impartiality garner an organization special rights?

If I wanted to flaunt the intent but not the letter of the Elections Act spending restrictions, I'd produce a nice, glossy magazine lambasting the Liberals and mail one free to every house in Canada. Maybe it would only be 4 pages long. Maybe it would bear a striking resemblance to a advertising flyer. But if it had, in small print on the back, "The Aldini Times, news & editorials, published by Jerry Aldini", would I not be bulletproof?

Speech restrictions are both immoral and unenforceable, though chilling, which is maybe the point.

I may have more - again, keep the feedback coming.


At 5:30 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments on the press are great, couldn't agree more. I wonder, though, if the Aldini Times would need to be registered in some way. Presumably there are restrictions on what is and is not a 'newspaper', but maybe not. During the last election, on election day, I actually received a mass email from someone I didn't know who was panning the Liberals. In principle, that should have been illegal since advertising on election day is verboten, but I doubt he was prosecuted - was that even advertising? Good question.

But you can't really believe that the relationship between advertising effectiveness and budget isn't linear - at least in general.

If that is the case, why are you concerned about the limits at all? If you can advertise just as effectively with $1000 as with 1 million dollars then why argue with the ruling? Just for principle? Your previous comments about the last election indicate that the limits did impact the ability to mount an effective advertising campaign.

I agree that some well designed low budget ad strategies are effective, and some poorly designed high budget ad strategies are ineffective. But, on balance, high budget strategies are more effective than low budget strategies for all kinds of reasons (not only quantity).

First, a higher budget allows greater diversity and frequency - you can advertise in many mediums, with many variations (all those damn Blue Cows - why was the cow in the Men's weightlifting anyway?).

You can get a better design - good ad designers cost more money than bad designers, which is why the ubiquitous family owned car dealership commercials are so damn lame.


- Jass

At 6:01 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But if it had, in small print on the back, "The Aldini Times, news & editorials, published by Jerry Aldini", would I not be bulletproof?"

Exactly so. We had such a publication appear in our neighbourhood directly prior to the June 28 election. Only one issue was ever printed, and it was mainly full of gushing editorials praising the Liberal Party and its local candidates. There was some obvious filler content, but it was pretty obvious that a bunch of Liberal partisans were having fun with the new spending restrictions.

We didn't keep it and now I'm wishing that I had.

-- Sean (www.polspy.ca)

At 6:30 a.m., Blogger Greg said...

Aldini, if Jack Layton says something through the media that is outrageous (perish the thought), Stephen Harper could quite easily get his reaction out in the media too. There is nothing the modern media loves more than a slanging match.

As for the 1988 election, I have seen estimates that business groups spent $56 million on advertising during the election, especially after the debates. That is a lot of moolah.

Again, I think your argument is based on the notion that the right needs help to overcome a leftist bias in the media. As a lefty, I see CanWest, the Sun chain,the Southam papers and the National Post as outlets for right wing ideas and views. Even the holy mother corp has Rex Murphy's Alliance Revival Hour, otherwise know as Cross Country Checkup on every week. So, forgive me if I am a bit skeptical.


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