By Aaron Stuckel
With Michael Fougere’s win in the 2012 Regina civic election, it’s safe to say that the city’s business community is looking forward to the next four years. The man’s pro-Revitalization Initiative stance was a divining rod on the campaign trail, while the two other top runners split their votes by both suggesting changes to the plan.
But, as most know, elections are not won on ideas alone. Throughout election campaigns, business and labour groups both take on campaigns of their own, advertising what their needs are and how they want their future to look. Though it is the role of these organizations to look after their members’ interests, their advertising is seen by more than just those who belong to business or labour groups. Non-partisan citizens are often swayed by these ad campaigns, and it follows that those partisan groups who spend the most money often end up winning in the end. This is a consistent problem in elections at every level of government, and one that threatens the democratic process.
The Regina Chamber of Commerce came under fire late in the election race in a Regina Leader-Post column written by left-leaning political commentator Greg Fingas. Fingas claimed that a website sponsored by the Chamber looked too much like an official election website. “It's difficult to imagine a more brazen attempt to assume a veneer of official sanction for plainly self-interested interference in a municipal election,” he opined. Reginavotes.ca contained a package of information detailing what the Regina Revitalization Initiative would do for the city, and offered a list of pro-business questions for citizens to ask candidates if they happened to knock on their door.
It was clear that the Chamber was hoping for a Fougere win, though it never publicly supported him. When John Hopkins, CEO of the Chamber, walked out of a backroom at city hall after all the polls came in, he looked dog-tired but slightly elated. “I think the message that I’ve heard is ‘let’s continue to move ahead in the direction that Regina’s been moving,’ which we believe has been very positive for this community,” he said. The Chamber’s ad campaign had paid off.
But they weren’t the only ones who ran parallel campaigns alongside the civic election. CUPE Local 21, which represents 1,250 outside city workers in Regina, also ran an election website that detailed the failings of the city plaza project. Labour groups also published some leaflets for citizens to read, but it was not to the same extent of the Chamber’s campaign, nor did any of the websites contain insignia similar to the City of Regina’s (as the Chamber’s site did). In the end, the money won.
This isn’t the first time that the Chamber or CUPE has run ad campaigns during elections. In the 2011 provincial election, the Chamber ran ads with the slogan “On Track” and CUPE started a website called imaginewhatwecoulddo.ca which supported raising royalty rates on the province’s resources. Both claimed to be non-partisan, but in the context of the election issues, it was clear who they were supporting.
It’s hard to say how much money these organizations spend on their advertising campaigns. Any non-voting group can donate as much money as they like to the party of their choice. All that’s required is disclosure on any amount over $500 that goes to a mayoral candidate. But that disclosure comes from the political party, not the donors. Any money spent by an organization remains a private affair if it isn’t going directly to a candidate. This can tally up quickly, too, considering a digital billboard can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 a month, and a 30-second radio spot averages about $65 for a full seven-day schedule.
In 2009, Pat Fiacco’s successful campaign cost him over $40,000 -- the highest in the election race. About one-third of that money went toward advertising. We won’t know much about Fougere’s campaign spending in 2012 until the numbers are made public, but what this shows is that money in advertising goes a long way in winning elections. And, regardless what side of the political equation a non-voting organization lies on, its advertising also holds a lot of sway.
But these ad campaigns can be damaging to the democratic process. Casual voters can misconstrue a website as official campaign material, and the interests of large organizations can sometimes sway votes. In order for democratic elections to live up to their mantra, the minds of the people must be allowed to think freely and without biased pressure from organizations with political motives.
But what to do? In the end, few voters are seriously educated in campaign issues and the candidates that they are electing. Ad campaigns by groups from the left and the right are not the appropriate form of education. If the two sides focused solely on getting people out to vote, the democratic process would be stronger for it. But even then, what good is a voter base that is uneducated on the issues at hand?
Maybe the answer lies in another website that ran through the 2012 civic election. David Loblaw, who put his name in early on in the mayoral election race, operated the site reginaelection.com after dropping out of the race in early May. Though clearly running on a much lower budget than either the Chamber site or the CUPE site, reginaelection.com offered free, unbiased information on all candidates with the “sole goal to increase voter turnout.”
In the end, if you take the politics out of election advertising campaigns, all that’s left is increased voter turn out — a win for everyone.