Saturday, April 19, 2008

David Frum gets all free speechy for the Conservatives

David Frum is chiming in for the Conservatives now, arguing that the in-and-out election scheme the Conservatives ran in 2006 is all about free political speech. They do their best to make this scheme sound all high falutin' and principled now don't they? But it seems David's been spending a might too much time down south and has forgotten that here, thankfully, in his home and native land, there are indeed spending limits on political "speech," namely on political ads. The person or party with the most money doesn't get to spend whatever they would like. Barack Obama is presently outspending Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by two to one and seeing his poll numbers rise. Coincidence? Flood the airwaves with ads and it has an effect. Look at what the Conservatives have successfully done in defining Stephane Dion. No matter what he does, he's tagged with the "Not a Leader" designation. So ads matter. The amount spent on them matters. And we've decided that we want an even playing field, at least during election campaigns anyway.

What the Conservatives did in the last election was to find themselves running up against their national spending limit in the days immediately preceding election day. So they transferred $ to the local constituencies, 67 of them that were under budget and non-competitive, and the $ immediately flowed back to the national campaign to buy ads in regions where seats were competitive. Elections Canada has therefore rightfully denied that this money can be recouped by those 67 local candidates from the taxpayer. It's not local money and Canadian taxpayers should not be on the hook to pay it back to those Conservative candidates. They're trying to take advantage of taxpayers in very suspect circumstances. And as much as they protest, none of the other parties exceeded their national limits.

To say that Elections Canada is determining the content of ads, dictating what is local versus what is national, well, that characterization seems compelling on the surface with its appeals to free speech and all. Making it look like Elections Canada is really in the censorship business. As Frum writes:
And Elections Canada has a similar choice to make about how it treats speech. It could give local candidates wide scope to express themselves in the way that those local candidates think most effective — or it can create a new role for itself as the hall monitor of Canadian elections, adjudicating what candidates can and cannot say in their campaigns.
Unfortunately for Frum, the issue's really been settled when we decided to have national versus local spending limits. They mean something. There's no giant pooling of national and local money to buy national ads. So the situation's not as ambiguous and all expressive and choosy as Frum tries to make it out to be. This reader on the Post website pretty much nailed the problem with the Conservative and Frum position:
The rules that exist allow the federal party to spend about $18M on national advertising (or other national expenses) and a local riding to spend about $80K. So, Mr. Frum suggests some Conservative candidates might think they are better served if the party would spend $22M on national advertising and they only spent $10K or so each, but they still collected their $80K from taxpayers as if this was a local expense.
If Stephen Harper would like to change the system, let him propose legislation doing so rather than going to war with Elections Canada under cover of legal proceedings. That way, we can all decide what kind of system we want to live under. An American one...or a Canadian one.