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New federal government actions, and Bill C-76, won’t stop secret, fake online election ads

Bill C-76 actually legalizes more false claims and false promises, more than doubles the ad spending limit for wealthy interests, and maintains unfair donation limits

Panel watching for election disruptions lacks independence as members all handpicked by Trudeau Cabinet, and voter education is a charade as voters can’t possibly be expert enough in all issues to know an online ad is false

House Committee report in December recommended many of the same changes as Democracy Watch to stop fake online election ads, protect voters’ privacy

Wedesday, January 30, 2019

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch highlighted key problems with the changes made by Bill C-76 (which became law in December), and the federal government’s initiatives announced today, that together don’t do enough to stop secret, fake online election ads or false claims about candidates, or to protect voters’ privacy.

The Trudeau Liberals’ actions so far will make the fall 2019 federal election more dishonest and dominated by wealthy interests running false ad campaigns aimed at trying to undermine the election.

“Bill C-76 weakens the rule that prohibits false claims about candidates, more than doubles the spending limit for wealthy interest groups and, even with the initiatives announced today, doesn’t do enough to stop secret, false, online election ads or big money donations,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch and Adjunct Professor of Law, and Political Studies, at the University of Ottawa. “As a result, the fall 2019 federal election will be more dishonest, unfair and driven by wealthy interest groups than any federal election since 1988.”

“The federal government’s new panel set up to watch for activities that disrupt the election lacks independence as it’s made up of five people that the Trudeau Cabinet handpicked,” said Conacher. “The government’s planned education campaign is a charade as it is impossible for any voter to be expert enough in every issue to know that any election ad makes a false claim.”

“If federal politicians actually want to ensure fair and democratic Canadian elections, the law must be changed to prohibit all false claims and false promises, lower donation limits, reverse the increase in interest group ad spending, require all media and social media companies to disclose to the Commissioner of Canada Elections all election-related ads from July on, and empower the Commissioner of Canada Elections to delete any false ad,” said Conacher. “The independence, effectiveness and accountability of election enforcement agencies also needs to be strengthened, and penalties for violations increased, to ensure everyone follows fair election rules,”

Democracy Watch is only calling for changes to key rules – none of the changes require any changes in Elections Canada’s election planning or operations – so there is no reason why the changes can’t be made between now and next June when Parliament closes and the pre-election period will begin.

See Backgrounder attached below for details about the key changes needed to:

  1. Stop secret, false, online election ads;
  2. Protect voters’ privacy;
  3. Require honesty during pre-election and election periods;
  4. Stop wealthy interests from dominating pre-election and election periods.

– 30 –

Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179 Cell: 416-546-3443
[email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Honesty in Politics Campaign, Money in Politics Campaign, Stop Fake Online Election Ads Campaign, and Democratic Voting Systems Campaign

(Democracy Watch, January 30, 2019)

The key changes needed to ensure honest, fair, democratic federal elections are as follows:

To stop secret, fake online election advertising by anyone (not just foreigners):

  1. Bill C-76 only prohibits big social media companies from knowingly running an ad paid for by a foreigner or foreign entity (section 190 of the Bill, adding new subsection 282.4(5) to the CEA), and requires them to publish a registry of election-related ads and maintain it for two years (section 208.1 of the Bill, adding new section 325.1 to the CEA). Those measures will do nothing to stop secret, fake online election ads paid for by Canadians or Canadian entities, and will do little to stop foreign-paid ads as the social media companies will just claim they didn’t know the ads were paid for by foreigners.

To see details of the key changes needed to actually stop secret, false, online election ads by foreigners and Canadians, click here.

Bill C-76 also doesn’t do enough to require political parties to protect the private, personal information they collect about voters, as it only requires that they publish their privacy protection policy on their website (sections 254-255 of the Bill, changing section 385 and adding section 385.1 to the CEA) instead of extending federal privacy laws to cover parties.

The House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics issued its report yesterday on stopping secret, false online election ads, and protecting voters’ privacy, and recommendations 1-3, 6-8, 10, 19, 22-24 match the changes that Democracy Watch has been calling for in these areas.

To require honesty by everyone during the pre-election and election periods:

  1. Bill C-76 does nothing to strengthen subsection 482(b)) of the Canada Elections Act, which prohibits false election promises by parties and candidates but needs to be strengthened because the Commissioner of Canada Elections negligently refuses to enforce it. The Commissioner responded to Democracy Watch’s complaint about Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau baiting voters with his false promise of electoral reform during the 2015 election with a decision refusing to enforce the rule;
  2. Bill C-76 also makes more false claims about candidates legal by narrowing the rule that prohibit false claims (section 91 of the Canada Elections Act). The current rule prohibits any false claim “in relation to the personal character or conduct of a candidate or prospective candidate.” Bill C-76 narrows the rule so it only covers false claims that these people (or a party leader or officials) violated the law or have been charged or investigated for a violation, and false claims about the citizenship, place of birth, education, professional qualifications or membership in a group or association of these people. Senators tried to amend Bill C-76 to restore the broader rule but the amendment was rejected.
  3. The words in section 91 requiring that to charge someone with making a false claim you have to prove they made the claim with the “intention of affecting the results of an election” also must be deleted because it is almost impossible in many cases that they had that intention (the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections both called for this change, and the change summarized above in #2, when testifying before the Senate Committee that review Bill C-76).

To stop wealthy interests from dominating pre-election and election campaigns:

  1. Bill C-76 more than doubles the spending limits for third party interest groups and individuals during election campaigns from approximately $200,000 up to $500,000 (section 224 of Bill C-76 changing subsections 350(1) to 350(4.1) of the Canada Elections Act (CEA)). The Trudeau Cabinet claims this increase is needed because the spending limit is being extended to cover election surveys and “partisan activities” such as door-knocking, phone calls and rallies. However, only citizen groups do those kinds of activities (businesses usually only spending money on ads). As a result, the limit should be increased only for citizen groups as the increase in the limit will more than double the amount of advertising businesses can do during an election campaign period.
  2. Bill C-76 also sets meaninglessly high limits of $1.5 million for party ad spending and $1 million for third-party (interest group) ad spending during the 60-75 days before the election campaign period begins (section 223 of Bill C-76, adding sections 349.1 to 349.94 to the CEA). The limits are meaningless because it is highly unlikely that any party or third-party will spend anywhere near those amounts during July and August – the only times the limits will apply (as the pre-campaign limits only apply when the election is held on the fixed election date of the third Monday in October). As well, the pre-campaign limit only applies to “partisan advertising” that promotes or opposes a party or a candidate, not to issue-based advertising.
  3. Bill C-76 also doesn’t lower the much too high donations limits that allow wealthy people to use money as a way to influence politicians, including the annual individual donation limits for 2019 of $1,600 to each party and another $1,600 to the riding associations of each party (both increase each year by $25). Bill C-76 also doesn’t lower the $5,000 amount an election candidate can give to their own campaign or the $25,000 a party leadership candidate can give to their campaign.

To see details, click here.

Democracy Watch testified at the Committee’s hearings on Bill C-76 in June and highlighted all these serious flaws in the bill, along with 20 or so other changes needed to ensure fair, democratic elections and strong enforcement that Democracy Watch submitted to Special Committee on Electoral Reform and to the government in fall 2016.