Canadians, go vote to get your money's worth

As Canada prepares to vote in the longest and possibly costliest election of its modern history, high voter turnout is key to bring the focus back on the role of citizens in Canadian electoral politics.

Emma Bustos
19 October 2015
Canadian PM visits Ontario Honda plant in election year.

Canadian PM visits Ontario Honda plant in election year. Demotix/Victor Bior. All rights reserved.The role of money in politics is an issue of concern all over the world. Political donations and campaign spending, if unregulated, can have a profound influence on electoral results. Canada has long been viewed as an example of good practice at keeping the role of money in politics in check. Limits on political finance introduced in the 1970s and tightened around the millennium ensured that citizens, not money, were at the heart of Canadian political processes.

Much has been said about the Fair Elections Act from 2014 and the reforms it introduced on political party financing. Making the spending limit for parties and candidates dependent on the duration of the campaign, opens the door to what could be the costliest election in Canada’s history, with political parties now allowed to spend $54.5 million in total on this 78-day campaign.

Various analysts have pointed out that, compared to the US, Canada’s ongoing electoral campaign is still relatively short and inexpensive. But is the US a good comparison? The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization that supports democracy worldwide, puts forward another frame of comparison in its Handbook on Political Finance. It calls them the “established Anglophone democracies” of Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the US – a group of countries that vary in size and geography, but share with Canada a common political and legal heritage influenced by their British past. They are all high-income countries, have a long tradition of free elections, and all but the US have parliamentary systems like Canada.

So how does the current Canadian electoral campaign compare with this group of countries? First and foremost, it is longer. Elections in the UK normally take place no more than 17 working days after the writ is dropped. In Ireland, it is 18 to 25 days; in Australia, 33 to 58 days; in New Zealand, 40 days. The US, where there is no defined campaign period, is the exception in the group. The minimum length of 36 days prescribed by Canada’s Fair Elections Act is thus roughly in line with common practice among this group – but the current above-minimum 78 day campaign is an outlier.

A longer campaign gives rise to two concerns: the possible spiraling of campaign costs, and a possible distortion of the playing field in favor of richer parties and candidates. This makes the regulation of campaign spending all the more important. According to International IDEA’s research, three of the six “established Anglophone democracies”, namely Australia, Ireland and the US, do not regulate the amount political parties can spend on their campaigns. Converting national currencies into international dollars, allowing for cross country comparison; the UK sets a limit at I$0.70 per registered voter, and New Zealand at I$0.63.

Before the last reforms, Canada used to cap it at I$0.62 per registered voter. Now, assuming the number of registered voter has not varied much since 2011, the spending limit per registered voter will be around I$2.30. In other words, this election campaign may see political parties spend over three times more money than they did in 2011.    

With the phasing out earlier this year of direct public subsidies to political parties in proportion to the number of votes received, the money they are now spending increasingly comes from private donors. Parties are still reimbursed by the state for 50 percent of their campaign expenses, however, meaning they now receive rebates for how much money they spend, not how many votes they get, an unfortunate ideological turn.

Canada must be wary not to end up in the worrying trend many other countries are experiencing - a situation where trust in political representatives is deteriorating on account of money, ultimately discouraging citizens from political participation.

Since the late 1980s, voter turnout in Canada has fallen by 14 percentage points, from 75.5 percent in 1988 to 61.1 percent in 2011. According to International IDEA’s Voter Turnout Database, over the past 15 years, Canada has been consistently below the world average for electoral participation. Among the “established Anglophone democracies”, only the US ranks lower than Canada for participation in parliamentary elections – but their participation in presidential elections remains much higher than Canada’s.


In short, with a longer campaign period and more flexible spending limits for political parties and candidates, this Canadian election will undoubtedly mark a new high in the amount of money that political contenders will have spent trying to influence the outcome of the vote. But only Canadian citizens can decide whether it will also mark a new high on the participation rate, thereby matching the growing role of money in Canadian politics with a reclaimed role for the citizens.

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