In Canada, people are given some protection against false or misleading advertising. There’s the voluntary “Canadian Code of Advertising Standards,” administered by Advertising Standards Canada (“Ad Standards”), a national, not-for-profit, self-regulatory body developed by the advertising industry in 1957. The Code was first published in 1963.
The Code applies to "advertising" by (or for):
- advertisers promoting the use of goods and services;
- entities seeking to improve their public image or advance a point of view, whether or not the advertising is for a commercial purpose; and
- governments, government departments and crown corporations.
Sounds good, right? That last line makes me think there could and should be a large number of complaints filed with Ad Standards against various governments and crown corporations. But I digress.
In case anyone might think that politicians provide “services” or should fall under the “governments” provision, or that the second bullet point fits them nicely, and they should therefore fall under the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, the Code specifies that it does not apply to political advertising or election advertising; the Code states,
“Canadians are entitled to expect that "political advertising" and "election advertising" will respect the standards articulated in the Code. However, it is not intended that the Code govern or restrict the free expression of public opinion or ideas through "political advertising" or "election advertising", which are excluded from the application of this Code.”
What we are “entitled to expect,” though, is not what we get.
As we’ve seen in this past election and many others, many candidates for political office, and their parties, have taken advantage of their “right” to tell lies. They’ve been misleading about their own record; they’ve told lies about other candidates and the intentions of other parties.
How can voters know what’s real and what’s false? Should the old market adage apply to voters in elections – “caveat emptor,” which means “buyer beware? That seems to be the current effect of the politicians’ license to lie. What is an election worth when voters battered by a storm of nastiness and falsehood may not be able to tell what’s true and what’s a lie?
Why should I have more protection against false advertising when I’m buying a widget than when I’m voting for a Member of Parliament, or a Member of the Legislative Assembly? If I’m buying something large, like a car, false advertising might lead me to waste money. Sure, that’s important.
But when I’m voting for a political candidate, my vote helps to determine which party ends up in power. I’m helping to determine which party’s policies will decide my country’s tax structure and how much tax I’ll pay, and what it’s used for, transportation policies, environmental standards, action (or not) on the climate crisis, my access to health care, and much more. Is that somehow less important than which car or brand of spaghetti sauce I choose to buy? Shouldn’t I have a right to cast my vote based on reasonably accurate information?
Canada’s Competition Act also governs false or misleading advertising done to promote products, services or business interests.
Do those elected to public office provide “services”? Do they have a “business interest” in being elected? Could we make a case that the Competition Act should apply to politicians and their parties? An article by Fair Vote Canada, “It’s time to regulate political advertising,” states that “The Competition Act, which also prohibits misleading or deceptive advertising, also does not apply to political advertising.” So much for that idea.
The same article points out that the Elections Act says nothing much about the content of political advertising. Nothing very enforceable, for sure.
In other words, there is no law against lying for gain in politics – just in commerce.
The article makes recommendations – time-consuming ones. After pointing out that it is possible to regulate the content of political ads, it cites Australian legislation – one provision states,
“(2) A person who authorises, causes or permits the publication of an electoral advertisement (an advertiser) is guilty of an offence if the advertisement contains a statement purporting to be a statement of fact that is inaccurate and misleading to a material extent.”
Fair Vote Canada recommended establishing a Citizens’ Reference Panel to answer four points:
- Should Canada adopt truth in advertising legislation which applies to political and election advertising?
- If so, what should the scope of the legislation be?
- What is the most appropriate body to regulate political and election advertising?
- What remedies would the body be able to enforce during and after an election or referendum campaign?
Perhaps I’m too impatient. “How long would THAT take?” I fume, after reading the recommendation. But perhaps it wouldn’t take so very long.
Perhaps my fierce desire for a government with enough courage and concern for the common good to enact a sensible law that would ensure truth in political advertising, and in statements by candidates, is unrealistic.
That 007-ish political “license to lie” really is a “license to kill” – a license to kill public trust in political candidates and parties, a license to kill our motivation to vote, a license to kill hope for a better future -- and a license to kill integrity by being corrupt; because lying – deceit -- is one face of corruption.
Freedom of speech is no excuse for lying or other forms of corrupt behaviour in politics or elsewhere. Why are we condoning corruption in those who want to be our leaders and run our country?
And here’s a link to a related article: