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Less Regulation; More Disclosure
Scott Thorkelson

At the time this article was written Scott Thorkelson was a member of Parliament for Edmonton-Strathcona

In thinking about electoral reform we should step back for a moment to ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve. The answer, I believe, is that we want full discussion and debate about issues so that the electorate, can make an informed choice on election day. We also want fairness between the contestants so no one party or one side of an issue can dominate any other. I have a number of recommendations that I think will help us achieve both these objectives and thereby encourage involvement by more people in the electoral process.

Under Section 3 of the Charter of Rights, Canadians have the right to vote but many people were missed in the enumeration process during the last election thus were not eligible to vote. The best solution to the problems we encountered would be a permanent voters list. This voters list would be updated yearly and would be available to all candidates the first day of an election. I would suggest that voters be required to register at a post office, or a motor vehicle registration office, and that records be maintained for each riding on a regional basis, so that we could keep costs down.

A permanent voters list would entail moving some responsibility from the government to the individual. I see no problem with this and I would recommend that the voters list be kept entirely confidential. I would like to suggest that persons could add themselves to the list up until about three days before the day of the election.

An annual or bi-annual enumeration could be done,or alternatively, a card could be sent out to people on the voters list and if it is returned, the registrar would have to identify who is living at that household, and strike the previously registered voter off the list. Also there should be some onus on a voter to re-register when they have moved or to notify the central agency that they are moving. The discrepancy which presently exists between urban and rural voters should be removed and a uniform rule applied across the country. One of the advantages of a permanent voters list is that the campaign period can be shortened, and secondly, a permanent voters list would allow for advanced absentee voting, or even registration on polling day, or close to polling day because everything would be matched against the permanent voters list.

In Canada we have three national parties competing, and they define the issues in a campaign. Individual candidates seek to enhance their name recognition and promote those very issues. Electors vote more for the party than the individual. Candidates are tied to what the leader and party stand for. This is not such a bad thing except that in a campaign almost all the resources are put toward promoting name recognition and the party platform with very few being put toward exploiting the differences between local candidates. There are great regional differences and shades of issues that could be exploited or explained on a riding by riding level.

More importantly, campaign techniques are changing. Targeted persuasive mail is used extensively in the United States. Some campaigns in the U.S. have mailed different pieces to a household as many as sixteen to twenty times in the course of a campaign, all addressing different issues and building support for a candidate. This should not be confused with a mail drop to every household, but a mailout to certain, pre-selected households. Postage and printing is very expensive and we will see more of this in the future as demographic information is put on to computers, etc. For this reason along with the increased cost of advertising and campaign materials, riding campaigns need more resources. The national campaigns used this direct mail technique in the last election.

I recommend that we should raise the tax credit level now in place. Today you get a tax credit of up to seventy-five percent of your donation up to one hundred dollars. I would argue that tax credit levels should be increased so that one could receive up to seventy-five percent of their donation up to two hundred dollars, and this should be revised approximately every two years.

I believe strongly that what we want to do in Canada is to encourage individuals to donate to the political process. Over the past few years we have seen an explosion in the number of individuals who have donated. In today's hectic society the way people may make their contribution to the electoral process is by writing a cheque, whereas in the past they may have come into a campaign office and stuffed envelopes, The practice in the United States is that increasingly sophisticated techniques are used for campaigns, and increasingly there are fewer and fewer volunteers, and more and more paid staff and paid media. This trend has continued. More resources are needed and it is better to receive them from a broad base of people. However, I would not outlaw corporate donations.

Banks have been heavy contributors to the political process, but this did not stop the Government from ruling in favour of the American Express application to become a bank in Canada. The five big banks were very much against this decision, and had lobbied it. Corporations generally donate to support the process, not in return for expected favours.

Constituency associations between elections should be able to issue tax receipts through Elections Canada, rather than through their own central parties. During an election, individuals make donations to candidates and they are processed through Elections Canada. During other periods, one can donate to a constituency association and that is processed through the central party which issues a tax receipt. One problem is that the central party takes a cut of the money donated, sometimes twenty-five percent, sometimes fifty percent which goes to pay for party operations. This is a disincentive for Members of Parliament and constituency associations to raise money and use money at the riding level to promote the electoral process and to discuss and debate public issues. Elections Canada could do this on a cost recovery basis. In light of MPs are being investigated for using House money for partisan purposes, we should acknowledge that partisan work must be done and it should be done through constituency associations and the political process.

Canadians want to contribute to their MP's work. In my riding I spend a lot of money to rent rooms for town hall meetings, to advertise for these same meetings, and to rent rooms for policy conferences so that I can listen to constituents. I have a volunteer Task Force on Science and Technology for which I have need to rent rooms and pay for breakfasts, and so on. I hold a Christmas Social and Summer Constituency Barbecue. I mail out 5000 Christmas cards. So it is a very expensive process just to maintain activities of one's own constituency association. If your party does not have a sitting member it is even more difficult. To raise money and then to see most of that money taken by the central party, tends to dampen ability of the constituency association to be very active and we need to encourage political involvement.

The advertising blackout now in place is a breach of a the freedom of speech. Most political parties know that the best strategy today is to load up or saturate the market toward the end of the electoral period. There are some strategies which would call for enhancing name recognition at the beginning and that is fine. But to have a blackout is completely senseless. If through a permanent voters list we manage to shorten the campaign by ten days, then I would reiterate my suggestion that we remove the advertising blackout. We have limits on spending and it is a tactical decision when to spend your advertising dollars.

Similarly I would not ban third-party advertising during an electoral period but would require people who advertise with the intent of influencing the electoral process to register and report their expenditures to Elections Canada. A ban on third-party advertising is a breach of a fundamental freedom and we should discourage that in a vibrant democracy. Balanced against that is the doctrine of fairness, and while we should not stop anyone from advertising, we certainly should monitor how much they spend so that the people can look back and see what sort of resources they have and why they are spending that money. These reports should be published. Any ad should also indicate who is paying for it.

We need fewer regulations on the process but more disclosure and outside limits on such things as spending. The more rules that are in place, the more ways people will find to circumvent them.

Voters are intelligent and sophisticated. They can see through a lot of propaganda. If the Alberta Government decided to spend a quarter of a million dollars explaining Free Trade, is Elections Canada going to charge them? I think not. Third party advertising is good because it identifies who the stakeholders are and from that, voters can ask why, and then make their judgements.

My final recommendation is that we apply election spending limits only to publicity materials in a campaign, specifically those things that are used to promote the candidate such as advertising, banners, signs, flyers, mailing brochures. How much one spends on a fancy campaign office or on a fancy but useless computer system is irrelevant. Those types of expenditures have very little to do with an electoral victory. What has most to do with an electoral victory is how voters perceive the party or the candidate to stand on an issue. Voters vote on issues, not personalities, and not money. So what would tend to make a winning campaign is how issues are put forward, in what light, and whether people agree with those issue and ultimately vote for the candidate. So it makes no sense to put any campaign expenditure limits on things such as furniture, computers, coffee, and so on, because those expenditures have very little bearing on the outcome of a campaign.



Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 13 no 3

Last Updated: 2020-03-03