Organized Interests Strike Back!

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Political News Monday, December 07, 2015 View Count = 1896

Organized Interests Strike Back!

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“Organized Interests Strike Back!is written by Rachel Laforest from Queen's University. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Rachel Laforest and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

Organized interests in Canada no doubt shelled out a record amount to influence the latest federal election. And unfortunately, we may never know how much. Indeed, one of the key distinctive features of this election was the visibility that political action committees such as HarperPAC, Engage Canada, and Working Canadians gained in the months prior to the official election period. More common in the United States, political action committees (PACs) are broad coalitions that pool campaign contributions from members to endorse or oppose political candidates or specific issues. Through political action committees, special interests (like corporations, labour unions, and even private individuals) can spend millions of dollars on television and radio ads to further their position on specific issues or industry, none of which is required to be reported. As a result, they are a new vehicle for organized interests, that have only recently been strictly banned from making donations in Canada. Their growing presence promises to usher in a new era in Canadian politics.

Third-party spending outside of the electoral period is not new. However, election laws in Canada ban corporate and union donations to political parties and candidates. Furthermore, individual and third-party annual donations are limited in an effort to keep the electoral process fair and transparent. In addition, spending by political parties and third-party supporters is strictly limited once the writ is dropped. As a result, organized interests have to find new ways to influence politics. With fixed election dates now implemented, they can start their advertising campaigns early and take advantage of the months leading up to the official electoral period in order to sway voters. Although they cannot assist the campaign directly, PACs can help consolidate early party leads and help frame the dominant narrative at the start of the campaign. 

The issue of the role of PACs in Canadian elections surfaced when a group called HarperPAC emerged on the scene in June. The overt reference to Harper in the name made it difficult to distinguish it from the political party, raising concerns regarding the independence of the PAC. It was rapidly shut down after public efforts from the Conservative Party to distance itself from the organization. Nevertheless, a debate on the place of PACs in Canadian politics was launched. 

Some argue that organized interests can circumvent rules regarding the amounts that can be spent in a political campaign and thus undermine the democratic process. Others counter that as long as the integrity of the official electoral period is protected, then PACs are operating within the current legislative framework. They are simply exercising their freedom of speech—one of the many actors who could add their voice to the democratic debate.

What is clear from the latest election result is that the influence of the early advertising campaign eroded over time, as illustrated by the movement in the polls. The fact that this was one of the longest election periods in Canadian history certainly helped limit the ability of PACs to sway voters. However, the future role of PACs in Canadian politics shouldn’t be judged simply on their apparent ability to influence public opinion. We need to remember that millions of dollars are being spent behind their ads, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum. Within shorter election time frames, the impact these organizations have may start to materialize in electoral outcomes. 

Furthermore, political action committees can have a polarizing effect on our electoral debates. While one would expect PACs to form along ideological lines, the 2015 pre-electoral period witnessed the establishment of GreenPAC, a single-issue committee formed to champion environmental issues. If PACs continue to grow as a vehicle for political influence, it is likely that we may see a greater number of these single-issue organized interests and the rise of political activism centered around single issues could increase dramatically. In such a way, organized interests could take advantage of wedge issues and partisan conflict.

The rising influence of PACs in Canadian politics has the potential to distort the democratic process in favour of wealthier and more powerful interests. This practice stands in clear contrast to the spirit of current campaign finance laws that restrict the ability of interest groups to make contributions to national electoral campaigns and to engage in political advertising. If we want to preserve the integrity of the democratic process, we need clarity and transparency with regards to the politics of influence, or else Canadians’ basic democratic values will be undermined.

Rachel Laforest

Rachel Laforest is an Associate Professor, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University. She is one of Canada’s foremost experts on the nonprofit sector. Rachel has been working in this field for over fifteen years and is respected nationally and internationally for her research on governance and government-nonprofit relations. She is also interested in intergovernmental relations and Canadian politics. She is the author of Voluntary Sector Organizations and the State (UBC Press, 2011) and editor of Government-Nonprofit Relations in Times of Recession (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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