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Air Wars: Are political ads valuable information essential for the public to have?  Free advertising paid for by taxpayers about dubious programs that sometimes don't even exist? And does third party advertising have too much or too little influence on elections? John Capobianco, Marit Stiles and Bernie Farber take on the hot topic.

Marit Stiles:

Election time is coming and you can see the signs everywhere...on the airwaves that is!

The Liberals chose to use their own ads to go after Conservative government advertising, accusing the government of spending taxpayer dollars on advertising in an election year. Election advertising is always a hot topic and the proliferance of third-party advertising in campaigns has generated a lot of commotion ... resulting in some provinces banning those ads. Even in Ontario where the provincial Liberals have benefited immensely from third-party advertising during elections, they are reading the tealeaves and considering limits.

The federal Liberal ad last week was — in my opinion — pretty lackluster. But probably a sign that they see this as a weak spot for the Cons. The NDP were quick to turn around a spoof ad reminding everyone of the Liberals' own murky history — remember the sponsorship scandal anyone?

Remember, the last time the Liberals were in power, taxpayers fronted $953 million for Liberal government ads. So, pot meet kettle.


John Capobianco:

Marit's point that a looming election creates the need for political parties to begin to "advertise" via the airwaves is completely true. The question that pundits and political observers ask around this time is always around the legitimacy of these ads and what constitutes real government ads vs. political ads. The challenge for government — be it provincial or federal — is that they have every right (and are expected) to ensure the public is aware of various government programs and initiatives.

Where the line gets crossed is when these ads go beyond advertising government programs and get into areas of a political nature.

As Marit mentions, this debate is causing provinces to take a look at tougher regulations - it is important to note that Canada, in relation to other countries, has some of the toughest regulations and watchdogs looking into political advertising.

This includes Ontario — oddly enough, since the "Working Families" coalition has for the last few elections spent millions of dollars in ads basically suggesting to voters NOT to vote for a specific political party — the PC's.

Both the Liberals and this union-based coalition have denied any ties to each other (and many lawsuits and court cases haven't been able to prove any connection) but it does make one ask the question — how fair is to have third parties spend millions to support a specific political party?


Bernie Farber:

Well isn’t this a special day?  Must be the warm temperatures here in Toronto, when the three of us all agree on basic concepts.

If I read us all correctly we share the fact that any vibrant democracy must have an expansive concept that permits the free flow of ideas and information during an election campaign. However, we also agree there has to be a level playing field. The very idea that a government in power for example can use what is in effect public money to boost their own image or attack other parties should never be tolerated.

It was for these precise reasons that back in 2004 the Ontario Liberal government legislated the Government Advertising Act. It allowed for the Auditor General to approve ads before they hit the airwaves. Frankly I think it’s time other jurisdictions learn from this example.


Marit Stiles:

Well government ads should indeed be regulated and vetted, but given the extensive ads that the Ontario Liberal government is pushing out under the auspices of 'government advertising', I question how effective that vetting has been.

Part of the problem is that these processes aren't capturing online and digital advertising, and you can be darn sure that where there's a potential loophole, they'll find it.

I'm totally in agreement about the use of public funds to bolster the image of government:  it's a longstanding practice and should not be tolerated, but seems to continue on as governments find new ways to twist and turn the rules to suit their needs.

When it comes to third party advertising, however, I think the case isn't as clear. As Andrea Horwath noted recently, while we need to ensure greater transparency and fairness in rules around this kind of advertising especially during elections, we also must allow for a variety of voices to be heard. It would be so darn convenient for the Conservative government in Ottawa to be able to block unions from speaking up on behalf of their members, and against the government's attack on working people. But those voices need and deserve to be heard.

John Capobianco:

The key thing here is creating a level playing field because as Bernie so rightly suggests a vibrant democracy such as ours should allow for ideas and information to be exchanged certainly during elections, but even before elections.

Our elections are typical very short usually lasting less than 40 days so the need for political parties to get their messages out is important and notwithstanding the volume of these ads, many value them.

The reality is that folks can complain about ads and how they are funded and who runs them, etc. but as we have seen in various court cases, freedom of speech will always prevail when it comes to disseminating information. Some political parties are better funded and do it better than others, but it is not to say that one party dominates this area because all parties engage in this.

In fact, some parties are very happy to have third party coalitions spend millions trying to convince the public that ONE party (PCs) is not worthy of their vote, even if it happens to benefit ONE party (Liberals) - and not usually the third party (NDP).


Bernie Farber:

I actually agree heartily with Marit — indeed unions and other groups need to have the right to speak out on behalf of their constituencies.

However, the public has the right to know where the funds from third party advertising actually come from so transparency is key.

But on straight up party advertising, at least here in Ontario, Marit, as you know the position of Auditor-General on non-partisan ads and in the past he/she has never hesitated to criticize governments and government policies that it felt unwise or needed correction. Questioning the vetting process is to question the Auditor-General, not the party in power.

And yes as John so correctly points out, in the end this is not a single party issue — we all engage in political messaging. Perhaps some objective oversight may make the electorate feel better.

On the other hand I remain to this day unsure as to the real effects of these advertisements on the public. Just ask the Alberta PCs or the Quebec PQs.






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