Posted September 20, 2013
Canadians often regard American politics with a mixture of fascination, bewilderment, and disdain. They certainly play by different rules.
Take campaign finances for example. There are no effective limits on how much can be spent on behalf of a candidate seeking a nomination or election. Total spending on the 2012 federal elections for President and Congress approached $6 billion, about two thirds of Nova Scotia’s annual provincial budget.
The two presidential candidates by themselves spent about $2.2 billion. By comparison, in 2009, Canada’s three federal parties were restricted to spending about $21 million each.
In Nova Scotia’s last provincial campaign, the three parties spent a total of $1.2 million, half of that by the NDP. In addition, candidates spent $4.8 million, mostly on signs, mailers, temporary offices, and meagre pay for a few staff. Given the restrictions on how much candidates can spend, most of the work is done by volunteers.
There are also many restrictions on donations. Organizations such as unions and corporations are not permitted to give at all, nor to remunerate employees for time spent in support of a campaign. Individuals receive generous tax support for the first $1,000 of donations but none above. Donors may not contribute more than $5,000 to any party and its candidates. Contributions are supplemented by public finances, based on prior vote counts.
These are all good rules. They greatly democratize the campaign finance business.
By contrast, campaign finance in the United States is largely the preserve of wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions. Barack Obama did some nice work crowd-funding smaller contributions but most of his money came from large donors. Big donors expect a payback.
The National Rifle Association keeps close tabs on congressional voting track records and will target gun control advocates with big donations to their opponents.
Gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s multi-million dollar contributions almost single-handedly financed Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. As a result, Adelson was able to dictate certain policy choices, particularly on United States policy toward Israel.
We should be glad to avoid that kind of merchandising of influence.
And then there is negative advertising. The American version can be vicious and often bears only passing resemblance to the truth.
Unfortunately Canadians, and in particular Nova Scotians, have less reason to feel smug on this account.
The current election campaigns often seem to have more interest in criticizing opponent positions than communicating their own. When asked about this in the first televised debate, Premier Dexter said that it is legitimate for parties to emphasize differences in their policy positions.
That is entirely reasonable. What is silly and does not fit that description is to talk, often inaccurately, about positions other parties might have had ten or twenty years ago.
Eighteen of the last thirty press releases on the NDP website are targeted at the other two parties. Half of their rather brief and vague platform document is comprised of criticisms, often inaccurate, of their opponents‘ positions.
The other parties are also guilty, although to lesser degrees.
For example, on August 27 Liberal leader Stephen McNeil said that “the Dexter government has spent $62.6 million in taxpayers’ money in a six week blitz, attempting to buy votes and make Nova Scotians forget about the NDP’s disappointing four plus years in office.” McNeil then committed to all the same spending, plus a good sized chunk of his own. Thirteen of their last thirty Liberal releases are negative.
Jamie Baillie tells us that the closing of the Dartmouth refinery is “a clear sign the economy is on life support under the Dexter NDP.” There are fundamental problems with the economics of that refinery that have nothing to do with the current or any prior government. The impact on the refinery’s employees and suppliers is much to be regretted; nevertheless, we should be thankful that the NDP did not throw money at this unprofitable facility. Seven of the PC’s last thirty releases are negative.
It is the conventional wisdom of pundits that this sort of thing works. In the United States, this has led to an electronic arms race of ever more shrill and ever less accurate negative messaging.
As we go into the final weeks of the campaign, Nova Scotian voters have a chance to push back.
Have a good look at each party’s website. Look at how many negative communications there are — ones that go beyond highlighting real differences in platforms. Do this, not because those communications provide truth, but rather to give you ammunition for the next candidate who knocks on the door. Tell that candidate why you don’t like negative messaging, and which of her or his party’s messages you find most offensive.
Tell the candidate to talk about that party’s positions, and press for details to see if there is any real understanding. For the many, as undecided voters, this will be a much better guide to choice than the nonsense that shows up in so many ads and media releases.
None of the candidates will be perfect, but not voting achieves nothing. This is the time to engage and make an informed choice.
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