Circumventing Public Financing: The Canadian Experience

In reading Michael Ignatieff’s recent political autobiography, Fire and Ashes:  Success and Failure in Politics, about his six-year foray into electoral politics, I came across an important account of the breakdown of Canada’s system of publicly-financed elections, in ways that could easily be anticipated and that all pubic financing systems have to confront.

Canada, like most countries with public financing, imposed caps on election spending by the political parties during what is called “the election period,”  a defined period of time triggered by the Governor General’s announcement of the election.  That period varies from around 1-2 months.  But if political party spending is limited during the election period, an obvious alternative is for the parties to spend unlimited amounts of money before the formal election period begins.

On Ignatieff’s account, that strategy is what successfully destroyed his effort, as the leader of the Liberal Party, to challenge the incumbent Conservative Party government, led by Stephen Harper, in the 2011 elections.  For two years leading up to the 2011 election, before the formal election period commenced, the Conservative Party ran two perfectly legal ads “over and over in what turned out to be the largest single campaign in Canadian history outside of an election period.”  The ads featured two phrases that became widely known:  “Michael Ignatieff.  Just Visiting.”  And “Michael Ignatieff.  He Didn’t Come Back For You.”  Ignatieff says the effect of these ads was immediate and devastating (though he accepts having other problems of his own); his poll numbers slid and his political colleagues viewed these ads as a “mortal blow.”  The Liberal Party didn’t have the money to respond and, as well, Ignatieff says, it wasn’t clear what kind of response would make the situation better rather than worse.

Why didn’t parties spend like this in the pre-election period before this most recent election?  Why did it take until 2009 before the permanent campaign came to Canada, in other words.  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.  And this kind of pressure is one public-financed systems similar in structure to the Canadian system — which is how most public-financing systems in Europe work — are going to be confronting more and more now.  These systems depend upon stringent regulation during “the election period,” a bounded and relatively short period of time, and then no regulation on spending outside that period.  If pre-election spending can dramatically shape election outcomes, though, will public financing with election-period spending limits remain viable?

Ignatieff, not surprisingly, concludes more regulation is necessary:  “I would advocate a ban on party advertising outside of election times” (he also advocates libel laws to punish “the worst lies” in election ads).  But 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?  Keep in mind that these Conservative Party opposition ads starting running two years before the 2011 election.

I raise all this not to criticize public financing, which I believe remains the most plausible option for those seeking to limit the role of large disparities of wealth in elections.  But proposals for public financing have to recognize realities about how money will inevitably be spent outside the regulatory system, or what the costs of extending that system further and further in time and scope would be.  And I wonder whether this recent experience in Canada will be a precursor to the unraveling of public-financing systems in other countries.

By the way:  Michael Ignatieff is back teaching full-time at Harvard University.