Richard Pildes has an interesting post over at the Election Law Blog, discussing Michael Ignatieff’s take on the “circumvention” of election campaign spending limits by the Conservative Party of Canada in their “permanent campaign” which, Prof. Ignatieff believes (and, in fairness to him, so do many others), destroyed him as a potential Prime Minister. The “permanent campaign” ― that is, political parties spending on advertising outside of the immediate pre-election periods, in which such spending is tightly regulated by the Canada Elections Act ― is a new phenomenon in Canada. (Not quite as new as prof. Pildes suggests; it started in 2007, when it was directed against Prof. Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion.) Prof. Pildes comments:
Why didn’t parties spend like this in the pre-election period before … ? … No reason, except that it just wasn’t done. Yet once political actors, including parties, believe this approach will work and have the funds to implement it, they naturally escape campaign spending limits by shifting spending to the pre-election period.
This, says prof. Pildes, is a problem not just for Canada, but for any other jurisdiction which limits political spending during the pre-election period, but not outside of it. (Prof. Pildes ties these limits to public financing of political parties, but that’s not a necessary connection, and indeed it has now been severed in Canada. Public financing for federal political parties has been abolished, but the restrictions on campaign spending, and hence the incentives to spend outside the regulated campaign period, remain in place.)
Prof. Ignatieff now favours “ban[ning] party advertising outside of election times,” but prof. Pildes notes that
once regulation moves outside of something clearly defined as a discrete “election period,” the issues become much murkier: does Ignatieff advocate banning all party spending in support or against candidates at all times? Or does he envision such a ban starting only a certain number of years after the most recent election, say 2-3 years, in anticipation of the next general election?
Expanding the restrictions on political spending and speech applicable during the election period would indeed be problematic. As I write in a paper on the regulation of political spending by “third parties” ― that is, anyone who is not a political party or a candidate for office ― which should appear sometime in the next few months in the McGill Law Journal,
the free discussion so essential to the existence of democracy and of parliamentary institutions is in Canada at no point so constrained as during electoral campaigns. No debate in Canadian society is so regulated as the one at the heart of our parliamentary democracy and thus at the core of the protection of the freedom of expression.
Are we prepared to accept the expansion of these constraints? And if we are, which constraints should we expand? Only those applicable to political parties, which professors Ignatieff and Pildes discuss, or should we also extend the limits applicable to “third parties,” whose political spending during election campaigns is now limited to an almost derisory amount which, as the dissenting judges in Harper v. Canada (Attorney-General), 2004 SCC 33,  1 S.C.R. 827 pointed out, that doesn’t allow them to use traditional media to communicate with national audiences?
British Columbia has, in fact, attempted to expand its restriction on “third party” spending to “pre-campaign periods,” first of 60 days and then of anywhere between 0 and 40 days, only for both attempts to be declared unconstitutional by its Court of Appeal, in British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408 and Reference Re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394. As I wrote here in commenting on the latter decision, I’m afraid that it “is a somewhat wilful, or at least wishful, interpretation of Harper.” The rationale of the Harper majority, which upheld severe restrictions on third party advertising during election campaigns, might be stretched to apply to pre-campaign periods.
But it’s not a sure thing that the Supreme Court would so stretch it. (As best I can tell, BC didn’t appeal the decisions striking down its pre-campaign rules to the Supreme Court, so we had no occasion to find out.) At some point at least, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify silencing, or even muffling, political debate. We might find it acceptable for the 35-day period of an election campaign. But longer, and especially permanent, restrictions come with very high costs for our freedom of expression. The “permanent campaign” might be a detestable innovation, but permanent censorship would be even worse.