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December 11, 2012

Money Doesn't Matter for Fringe Parties

As we see in the US, fixed election dates contribute to perpetual campaigns with unlimited spending. There aren't US style "super-PACs" in Canada, but interest groups can engage in unlimited campaign style spending prior to the formal 28 day election period. Whether such ads are effective is arguable. The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association advertised heavily prior to the April 19th, 2012 by-elections with no apparent effect.

BC's May 14, 2013, general election will be only the third on a fixed schedule, but already we've seen abuse of government advertising months before the election date and political parties campaigning well in advance. Fixing the abuse of government advertising will probably require legislation giving a neutral third party authority to approve or reject ads. As for party spending, BC took a small step before the 2009 election, limiting spending and adding discloser requirements for the 60 day period prior to the formal campaign period. Government attempted to stop interest groups from advertising prior to the formal campaign, but its "gag law" was rebuffed by the court.

Spending limits set so high that most political parties cannot raise enough money to take advantage of them, or that result in the political parties appearing to be obligated to major funders, beg for reform. The election acts for Canada, Manitoba and Quebec set spending limits, put maximums on the amount of any individual donations and prohibit donations from businesses or unions. Quebec provides for public funding of political parties, a provision being phased out of the federal legislation. It is unlikely that public funding of political parties, beyond the tax credits that already exist, could be introduced in BC without it becoming an issue in the subsequent election; however, adoption of restrictions like Manitoba's are achievable. That is a reform encouraged by Integrity BC with its petition campaign.

It is interesting to look at the role money played in the 2009 election campaign where the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens all ran full slates of 85 candidates. The BC Conservatives ran only 24 candidates, and other fringe parties ran a scattering of candidates.

Thanks to Elections BC's Searchable Financial Reports and Political Contributions System it is possible to examine the financial disclosures of all political parties and candidates. The first thing to notice is that the Elections Act puts separate spending restrictions on central political parties and on each individual candidate. In 2009 parties could spend a maximum of $1.1 million in the 60 days before the writ and $4.4 million during the writ; candidates could spend a maximum of $70,000 in each of the two periods. It is noteworthy that independent Vicki Huntington won in Delta South, spending $44,100 between the formal campaign and the 60 days preceding it, compared to spending in that riding of $90,110 by the Liberals and $26,441 by the NDP, and only $112 by the Greens. When spending is discussed below, it means the combined reporting period of the formal campaign and the 60 days preceding it.

Only the Liberals and NDP raised enough money to run central campaigns with significant purchases of TV and radio ads. The actual combined two period central campaign spending for the Liberals was $5.18 million, for the NDP $3.65 million, for the Greens $75,479 and for the BC Conservatives $16,466. What the Greens and Conservatives spent centrally are rounding errors for the Liberals and New Democrats. It is interesting to ask why the fringe parties can attract voters but they can't attract donations. They will point to big business and union donations, but look at the financial reports for the calendar year 2011 (the most recent full year reported). The NDP raised $3.34 million from individual donations out of a total of $4.4 million in donations, the Liberals raised $3.10 million from individuals out of a total of $8.93 million in donations, the Greens raised $138,558 and the Conservatives $209,560.

With no effective central parties, the efforts of the Greens and Conservatives are focused on riding level campaigns. In the 2009 general election, despite running 85 Green candidates, only 16 spent over $5,000 in their campaign. Disclosure reports show 21 Green candidates said they spent exactly $100, another 5 said they spent less than $100. The Green candidate for Chilliwack declared only $25 in spending; she won 1,523 votes, 8.3% of all votes cast.

The financial report for the Conservative candidate for the riding of Chilliwack Hope declared no spending, not a cent; nevertheless, he won 1,178 votes, 7.8% of all votes cast. The financial report for the Conservative candidate for the riding of North Vancouver Lonsdale also declared that nothing was spent; he won 862 votes, 4.1% of all votes cast.

From the 2009 election results, it appears that regardless of campaign intensity, simply getting the Green or Conservative name on the ballot is worth a minimum of 5% of the vote. The 55 Green candidates who spent over $200 on their campaigns won an average of 9.2% of all votes cast in their ridings, with a high of 22% in West Vancouver Sea to Sky where the Green candidate spent $12,948. The 30 Green candidates who spent less than $200 won an average of 6.1% of the vote, but candidates in North Vancouver Seymour and Abbotsford Mission both received just over 9%.

It looks like brand name counts but not enough to win any race. There were two four way races in 2009. In Boundary-Similkameen the Liberal candidate, John Slater, won with just 37.5% to the NDP's 32.9%, the Green's 9.5% and the Conservative's 20.2%. In Vernon-Monashee the Liberal candidate, Eric Foster, won with just 37.3% to the NDP's 31.8%, the Green's 16.7% and the Conservative's 8.2%. In 2009 31 of the 85 ridings had combined Green and Conservative votes in excess of 10% (remember the Conservatives only ran in 24 ridings). More four way races are expected in 2013.

While money doesn't appear to have mattered much for the fringe parties, for the parties that seriously sought to form a government it was no doubt a factor. In addition to having 42% more ($1.5 million) in its central campaign, in the ridings the Liberals won, on average they outspent the NDP by two to one. In the ridings the Liberals lost to the NDP, on average they spent 13% more. That imbalance is unlikely to change in 2013. The NDP has to hope that the influence of money, including the influence of a $15 million tax payer paid partisan advertising campaign, isnít enough to overcome the positive campaign run by Adrian Dix and the sizeable gap the Liberals have had in the polls since introducing the HST.