A Prescription For A Healthier Democracy: Ban Political TV Advertising

The November 2 mid-term elections are now over and if your television picks up US news, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You have probably been using the mute button a lot lately. As the US voters prepared to go to the polls, the airwaves were polluted with non-stop negativity. It was not just the Democrats and the Republicans who were buying ad time to slam the other guy. In addition to the hundreds of millions they spent, an estimated $284 million was spent by non-party groups, most of it to support Republicans. It looks as though those groups spent more in this season’s congressional races than they spent in the 2008 presidential race. All told, campaign expenses in the mid-terms were estimated at $4 billion.

People who are knowledgeable about politics say ‘going negative’ works. Attack ads are effective. It wasn’t until I was researching my last book that I took the time to try to figure out why. I hate the shift in our political culture to nasty and ad hominem campaign advertising. Everyone I know hates it. Every audience I have addressed, in every town meeting, anywhere in Canada, say they hate it too. So how on earth does something everyone professes to hate keep getting more prevalent?

When writing Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy, I found the research from numerous experts on public opinion. According to Andrew Grenville, a researcher with Ipsos Reid, ‘Attack ads can often work in the short-term. They give you a short boost. But they reduce the number of people who want to vote. They reduce participation in the democratic process. They poison the system’—Vancouver Sun, Todd, ‘Federal Conservative Attack ads ‘poisoned’ the election.’

Attack ads discourage people from showing up to vote. So, by definition, attack ads are anti-democratic.How does driving down voter turn-out help a political party? Well, look at the 2008 election campaign. The nastiest ads were run by Mr Harper’s Conservative Party. If your measure of whether they ‘worked’ is the number of Conservative votes, you would conclude they failed. The Conservatives got approximately 170,000 fewer votes in 2008 than in 2006.

It isn’t really a surprise that an attack ad that ridicules or degrades other politicians did not persuade voters to support the party running the ad. The attack ads helped the Conservatives because of the impact it had on the voter base that supported the Liberals in 2006. Over 700,000 fewer of them bothered to vote at all. Historically low voter turn-out helped Mr. Harper’s party win more seats – with fewer votes.

The Prime Minister expressed concern with the low voter turn-out, saying ‘We’re obviously disappointed by voter turn-out. It’s low and been getting lower for some time now.’ Ottawa correspondent for the Halifax’s Chronicle Herald, Steve Maher wrote, ‘Mr Harper is not at all disappointed that more people didn’t vote in this election, since he has been working diligently for almost two years to make sure that the Liberals stayed home.’— October 16, 2008, Chronicle Herald, ‘Keeping Grit voters home.’

Knowing this, I am really worried about the next federal election campaign in Canada. Where Harper’s attacks on Mr Dion were limited to his ability to be persuasive in his second language, Mr Ignatieff offers the Harper ‘fear factory’ (as his communications team is called in Ottawa) a veritable smorgasbord of attack ad opportunities. Mr Ignatieff hosted TV programmes in Canada and the UK and frequently appeared on US television networks. He defended the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib on the Charlie Rose programme (now watchable on Youtube). He referred to himself now and again as an American. There are issues for Mr Ignatieff to address, but if the worst clips are framed by experts in public opinion manipulation, the system will be ever more poisoned.

Mr Harper has already expressed his intention to use tapes of Ignatieff. In one bizarre exchange in the House, Mr Harper shot across the aisle that with ‘the tapes I have’ on Ignatieff, he wants to see him in an election. Reporters were scratching their heads. Was this some sort of Nixon- esque reference to illicit tapes? No. Quite simply, it is the store of video tapes that makes Mr Harper excited about the next round of attack ads. With every election, voter turn-out goes down. Regardless of what party you support you should be very worried about the erosion of democracy in reduced voter participation.

Now is the time to propose solutions—before the next election. Looking around the world to see what other countries do to restrict attack ads, I discovered many do not allow paid political party TV advertising at all. The list of countries that do not allow it is long: the UK, South Africa, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, Chile, Sweden, Ireland, the Philippines, and more. Some countries ban TV ads, but allow radio. Others ban both.

Canada and the US stand out as practically the only countries with access to paid political TV ads by political parties. Right now, the only limitation in Canada is on paid television advertising during a writ period. The only limitation is how much money a party is allowed to spend. Outside of writ periods there is no spending limit. And that is the period Mr Harper’s party has used very effectively. In fact, the Conservative Party’s January 2007 ‘Not a Leader’ series against Mr Dion were the first attack ads aired outside an election period.

Let’s have this conversation now. Let’s demand a ban on paid television political advertisements, before and during the writ period. Think of it as an experiment. If democracy is sick, let’s stop poisoning it and see if things get better.

Elizabeth E. May is the author of Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy (McClelland and Stewart, 2009 ). She is the Leader of the Green Party of Canada.
For more information about US non-party campaign ads, see NPR article ‘‘Independent’ Groups Behind Ads not so Independent,’ www.npr.org.