Understanding Third-Party Advertising: An Analysis of the 2004, 2006 and 2008 Canadian Elections

By Lawlor, Andrea; Crandall, Erin | Canadian Public Administration, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Understanding Third-Party Advertising: An Analysis of the 2004, 2006 and 2008 Canadian Elections


Lawlor, Andrea, Crandall, Erin, Canadian Public Administration


No matter the goals of the political actor, the ability to raise and spend money is a necessary function of representative democracy. The necessity of money is, of course, not without problems--particularly when it is placed in competition with the goal of free and fair elections. Chief among these challenges for democratic societies is how spending by political actors should be controlled (Ewing and Issacharoff 2006: 1). In Canada, the underlying tension between the right to political expression and the desirability of relatively equitable political participation has played out most explicitly in efforts to regulate the election spending of third parties (individuals and groups other than registered candidates and political parties). Since the adoption of the Election Expenses Act in 1974, Canada's federal government has attempted to promote equality of citizen participation by placing limits on how much third parties can spend during elections. From the beginning, however, these limits have been criticized as undue constraints on political expression. Such criticisms have on several occasions led to legal challenges--very often successful ones--that have resulted in four federal elections (1984, 1988, 1993 and 1997) being contested without any limits in place. In fact, it is only since the 2004 Supreme Court decision, Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, 2004 SCC 33 (Harper), in which the Court's majority recognized the constitutionality of third-party spending limits, that Canada has achieved a level of policy stability on the matter.

Given the policy flux that constitutional challenges have brought to third-party spending limits and the importance of the policy in terms of Canada's overall approach to political finance, it is unsurprising that the vast majority of literature on the subject has focused on the reasoning for and desirability of the policy itself. As a consequence, very little empirical analysis considering the effects of third-party spending has been completed, and, to our knowledge, none of these works has analysed third-party spending with limits in place and enforced.1 Given the energy spent over the last couple of decades by the federal government and scholars alike to defend the importance of these spending limits, it is worthwhile to consider whether the policy's apparent triumph in Harper has been followed by its desired outcomes. While the value of third-party spending limits has been ably argued in the abstract, their actual performance has yet to be analysed.

This article seeks to help fill this gap. Using an original data set compiled from third-party election advertising reports from the 2004, 2006 and 2008 federal elections (available at the Elections Canada web site, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=fin&document=index&dir= thi/advert&lang--e), we analyse several components of third-party advertising spending. In doing so, it offers the first opportunity to consider the effects of this important election policy.

We thus proceed as follows. A brief historical review of the federal government's experience in regulating third-party advertising expenditures is provided. From here, we present the competing theoretical frameworks for election spending regulation--the egalitarian and libertarian models. With the principles of the egalitarian model now relatively secured in legislation, the expectations of this particular model are given careful consideration. We then analyse the third-party spending data. This analysis includes examining the amount of money spent by various groups of contributors, the types of expenditures made by third parties and spending as a proportion of the limits imposed. We conclude by evaluating whether the spending patterns of third parties under these newly imposed limits conform to the expectations of the egalitarian model and whether third parties appear to be using spending limits strategically in light of policy changes that occurred between the 2006 and 2008 elections, which severely limited other financial contributions to federal candidates and parties.

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