Loopholes in election legislation encourage deceitful advertising, says the executive director of government watchdog Integrity B.C.
Dermod Travis noted that because election advertising is the only form of advertising not governed by provincial, federal, and industry regulations, political parties, candidates, and their supporters can lie to voters without fear of repercussions.
“It promotes a culture of getting away with whatever you can get away with,” Travis told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
For Travis, that is “unequivocally wrong”.
Travis shared his opinion following allegations by defeated B.C. NDP candidate Gabriel Yiu that a group that supported the B.C. Liberal Party disseminated misleading information to Chinese voters during the May 14, 2013, election campaign.
According to Yiu, the Better B.C. Coalition group misrepresented his party’s position on a number of issues, including falsely claiming that New Democrats favour marijuana legalization.
A spokesperson for the Richmond-based organization, which is registered with Elections B.C. as a third-party advertiser, has strongly denied the accusation. Alice Tang previously told the Straight that Yiu shouldn’t blame anyone for his and the B.C. NDP’s loss.
Nola Western, deputy chief electoral officer with Elections B.C., explained then that the law’s requirement to provide truthful information doesn’t cover the content of election advertising.
Although Yiu said he believes that there’s a loophole in the legislation that needs to be plugged, Leonard Krog, B.C. NDP critic for the attorney general, indicated that this wouldn’t be easy.
According to the Nanaimo MLA, it would be a “bit of a nightmare” to determine who or what body gets to decide what counts as fair or legitimate advertising.
“I don’t know of any government that wants to start and try to regulate this, necessarily,” Krog told the Straight by phone. “How do you do it, and how do you do it effectively? Are we creating just another bureaucracy?”
But Krog also raised the question of whether or not legislation should be amended to address the advertising campaign run by another group, the Concerned Citizens for B.C.
The group was led by Jim Shepard, a former corporate CEO and $1-a-year adviser to B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark. Shepard raised $1 million, and his group then ran attack ads against NDP leader Adrian Dix.
Shepard’s group ceased operations before the election writ was dropped on April 16, making it exempt from the legal requirement for third-party advertisers to disclose their donors and expenses.
“They did all of this outside of the election time and therefore we don’t know who donated and who they were,” Krog said.
Unlike Shepard’s Concerned Citizens for B.C., Tang’s Better B.C. Coalition has to file a disclosure report within 90 days after the May 14, 2013, election.
SFU communications professor Catherine Murray suggested that maybe it’s time to consider some form of independent monitoring of electoral speech.
The academic cited as an example the work being done by American political-communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Jamieson helped create FactCheck.org and Flackcheck.org., which are nonpartisan sites that call out lies by U.S. politicians.
“Legislation is crafted very narrowly,” Murray told the Straight by phone about the limitation of the law in addressing fairness in election advertising.
Another tool that may be considered is the stand-by-your-ad provision in American election law. It requires candidates to state that they approved of the advertisement, according to Integrity B.C.’s Travis.
“That is a legal requirement in the U.S., and it was meant to try to turn down the volume, if you will, on negative attacks and misleading ads,” Travis said. “Now the only problem is that only applies to ads being put out by the candidates and the parties and not to ads being put out by third-party groups or Super PACs [political action committees].”