Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On loopholes

Impolitical is right to criticize Steven Fletcher's over-the-top response to Senator Dennis Dawson's bill to make pre-election advertising fall under a party's election expense limit if it takes place within three months of the drop of the writ.

But there's a grain of truth to at least part of Fletcher's complaint. Any system where one or more political parties can change the effect of another party's actions after the fact would seem to be ripe for abuse. And that would be exactly the situation if an election call (whether due to a government seeking dissolution or opposition parties voting it down) can change how advertising purchased months earlier affects a party's ability to plan for an election.

Fortunately, though, there's an easy fix: eliminate the time limit altogether, such that all advertising expenses by a political party are considered part of its expenses for the next election campaign.

On its face, that might seem likely to prevent between-election advertising. But in practice, it could easily have just the opposite effect.

Since advertising would be subject to exactly the same rules - including election rebates - regardless of when it's incurred, the question for political parties would be when they're best off using a fixed amount of capacity to advertise. And it seems entirely plausible that a party could get more value purchasing advertising at a time when it can frame its own desired message without too much competition with an eye toward influencing the direction of a campaign well in advance, rather than forming only one part of the usual election-period bombardment.

Moreover, counting all advertising under election spending limits might even reduce the stigma of advertising outside of an election campaign. Rather than being seen as an unnecessary and unusual intrusion, any ads between elections could be perceived as a down payment which reduces the amount of advertising people will be subjected to during the next election campaign.

Either way, the parties involved would know in advance exactly how their spending between elections would affect their ability to advertise during the election campaign. Which would serve to put everybody on an equal footing, rather than creating a new set of bizarre incentives for parties to try to trap each others' pre-election advertising under an election spending limit.

In sum, rather than opening up a new set of loopholes through an artificial time provision, Dawson and the Libs would be well served to close the loop by making all party advertising subject to the same rules and incentives.

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