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June 23, 2011

Canada: The media and democracy

Stephen Garvey

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In a recent Foundation for Democratic Advancement (FDA) audit of the Canadian federal electoral system, Canada received less than 26% grade for electoral fairness.

The grade is based on Canadian constitutional, electoral and broadcast/media laws for the following categories: equality of political content of the Canadian media and broadcast networks, equality of political candidate and party influence, equality of electoral finance, and equality of voter influence.

The FDA believes that the foundation for democracy of a country is its constitutional laws, electoral laws, and media laws. The stronger the democratic foundation, the more democratic a country will likely be. A country with a weak democratic foundation will likely face shortcomings in its democracy and obstacles in advancing it. Canada falls into this category.  

For example, in the 2011 federal national televised debates, only the leaders from four registered political parties out of nineteen registered political parties were allowed to participate. The major Canadian broadcasters united in an organization called the Canadian Broadcast Media Consortium, an unelected private organization, made this decision, and in turn impacted significantly Canadian electoral discourse.

In Canada’s Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is no direct mention of political equality or electoral fairness. Rather, there is direct mention of freedom—“free and democratic society.” Also, there is no elaboration of what is meant by the term “democratic society.”

In the FDA’s opinion and as articulated in the Canadian Supreme Court Case, Harper, freedom and democracy are not necessarily compatible. A society with too much emphasis on freedom like Canada, could allow a minority group with significant economic and political power to dominate the majority of the people.

The FDA electoral fairness audit on Canada uncovers two significant areas where freedom has been misused to the detriment of Canadian democracy.

First, the Canadian major media and broadcasters have no legal restrictions, within extremes, on their political content. Before, during, and after an election, the Canadian major media and broadcasters can be partial and produce and disseminate unbalanced electoral coverage. For example, one week prior to the 2011 federal Election Day, the Globe and Mail weekend issue on April 23/24, 2011, had a four page article on only three political parties.

In the Canadian Constitution, Charter, Canadian Election Act, and the Canadian Broadcaster Act, there is no mention of political equality, electoral fairness, impartiality, or complete and balanced.

In contrast, in Lebanon, there are specific and concrete laws on the impartiality of the media: “Article 67, New Laws. The public and private media must not carry out any activity that might be considered to favour any candidate or list at the expense of another candidate or list.”

In Venezuela, there are specific laws on the impartiality of the mass media: “Article 79, Organic Law No.6. The media, public or private and independent producers cannot make on their own any type of propaganda aimed at supporting a candidate or a candidate, or to encourage or discourage voting or vote constituencies for or against any of the nominations.”

Second, the majority of Canadian MPs have the self-appointed power to change the Canadian federal electoral laws and regulations.

For example, the Conservative Party is planning to eliminate party subsidies. The only checks on the majority of MPs legislative power are the Canadian Supreme Court through upholding the Canadian Constitution and public vote every four years. Since the emphasis in Canadian laws is on freedom, Canadian MPs have minimal constraint on them to produce fair, equitable electoral laws. Consequently, as an example, the current Canadian electoral finance laws favor significantly political parties successful in the previous election and larger, wealthier parties.

These laws are severely disadvantageous to small and new political parties and promote a political status quo, rather than help create an equal playing field for registered political parties. To illustrate, in the 2011 Canadian federal election, the Liberal Party of Canada was entitled legally to a maximum of just over $21 million in campaign expenditures, while the United Party of Canada was entitled legally to a maximum of $63,703.06 in campaign expenditures.

The combination of major media and broadcaster’s freedom and the power of the majority of Canadian MPs to create electoral laws severely hinder Canadian democracy, by reducing electoral choice and electoral opportunity.

In Canada there is a union of major media and broadcasters with the state, and a resulting stranglehold on democracy. The state refers to the Canadian political establishment comprised of the Conservative Party, Liberal Party, and NDP. The major media and broadcasters are comprised of the following companies: CTVglobemedia, Rogers, Shaw, Astral, Newcap, Quebecor, and CBC.

The union of the church and the state proved to be a harmful situation, as the union fueled the religious wars of the Middle Ages.

In the 21st century, Canadians are experiencing the harmful effects of a union of major media and the state and the resulting deterioration of Canadian democracy, whereby the voices of the people are being dominated by the major media and the state. Canadian major media and broadcasters are an extension of the Canadian political establishment, the dominant Canadian parties, and ultimately the Canadian government, and vice versa.

In the FDA’s opinion, a healthy democracy will have an array of political perspectives and an equal electoral playing field, in which the people decide who their representatives are. Underlying such a democracy, are the pillars of liberty, political equality, and electoral fairness. All three pillars are essential to producing a healthy democracy.

The emphasis on freedom like in Canada encourages political inequity and electoral unfairness. An emphasis on political equality and electoral fairness without liberty would undermine political equality and electoral fairness.

The way forward for Canada is simple: Infuse electoral fairness and political equality into its democratic foundation, so that liberty, electoral fairness, and political equality stand side by side.

The challenge for Canadians is to overcome the Canadian political establishment which has benefited and continues to benefit from an overemphasis on political liberty. A starting point would be support for a political party which espouses a renewal and redirection of Canadian democracy and the three pillars of democracy, or the formation of such a political party.

Democracy is an extension of the people. If the people are disconnected from democracy, then democracy will cease to represent the people. Therefore, it is imperative that Canadians fight for their democracy.

Stephen Garvey is founder and executive director of the Foundation for Democratic Advancement.

Foundation for Democratic Advancement

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