the comfort of why

The Indiscernible Tagline

During last year’s federal election campaign in Canada, I received a direct mail piece that I thought flouted the principles of transparency.  

After filing a complaint and an extended correspondence with a representative from the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, I knew that the leaflet met the letter of the regulations.  I was adamant that it did not meet the spirit of them.  

This is a copy of the letter I mailed today to The Honourable Maryam Monsef asking that she initiate a process to amend the regulations pertaining to the tagline on campaign materials.

August 24, 2016

The Honourable Maryam Monsef
Minister of Democratic Institutions
Centre Block, Suite 546S
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Dear Ms. Monsef,

Please accept my belated congratulations on your successful election as a Canadian Member of Parliament and on your subsequent appointment to Cabinet as the Minister of Democratic Institutions.

Last year’s election campaign was a long one and, on occasion, bitterly fought. In Canada, the integrity of the general voting system is upheld by its overall structure as well as the regulations and operational details of which it is comprised.

While your main focus now is on electoral reform, I would like to draw your attention to a flaw in the regulations of the Canada Elections Act (Act) that pertain to the tagline in campaign marketing materials.

During last year’s federal election campaign, I received many direct mail pieces. There was one in particular that I found objectionable. While the mailer met the requirements of the regulations, it clearly contravened the intent and the spirit of the rules. I have enclosed the original mailer for your reference.

Reema scans in the side of the direct mail piece attacking the federal NDP. I filed a complaint about this particular mailer, via an online form, on October 9, 2015. My complaint read as follows:

I received a piece of campaign literature today which is national in scope. It does not clearly identify the sender, the political party, or the official agent. Furthermore, it does not even identify the name of the local candidate in my riding. This appears to me to violate the guidelines, at the very least in spirit, for advertising material. Depending on who paid the costs of production & distribution, it may also violate financing guidelines. (9 October 2015)

The response I received was that the mailer met the requirements of the regulations. Specifically, the email dismissed my concerns as follows:

Thank you for your message of October 9, 2015 with respect to the election advertising leaflet that was distributed in your riding.

The Canada Elections Act (Act) requires that a candidate or registered party who runs an election ad mentions in or on the message that its transmission was authorized by the candidate’s official agent or by the party’s registered agent. The Act  is silent as to the size, colour or placement of that mention, which is referred to as the “tagline”. I would draw your attention to the bottom right of the page showing Thomas Mulcair, under the word “Canada” where the following statement appears: “Authorized by the registered agent of the Conservative Party of Canada”. The tagline does appear and provides the information required by the act. (11 October 2015)

Reema scans in the nearly invisible tagline of the direct mail piece.As you can see for yourself, the tagline is barely discernible. I struggled to decipher what it said. It would have been impossible for many to even know that a tagline had been included.

I was not satisfied with the response and had further correspondence with an agent from the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections. After sending him a scanned copy of the direct mail piece, I received this response:

Good morning Ms. Faris:
I am familiar with the literature you forwarded me.  We had previously reviewed it and as you noted the tag line is included on the ‘Mulcair’ side of this literature. It does state that the political advertising is authorized by the registered agent for the Conservative Party of Canada. Generally speaking, the Act does not control the content of election advertising (or the font size for the authorization line), but regulates the reporting of associated expenses and requires that an authorization statement appear on the advertising. 
The literature you received is an initiative from the Conservative Party of Canada and an expense of this political party.  It is not associated with the local Conservative Party of Canada candidate in your electoral district.
Hoping this clarifies this matter … (14 October 2015)

I did not find the response satisfactory and wrote again:

It clarifies matters, but does not resolve my complaint.
Here’s the thing: a tagline is meant to identify the sender. If it is virtually impossible to read, then it defeats the purpose. Just having it there is not enough. It respects the letter of the regulation, but does not satisfy the intent.
Similarly, if benefits accrue to the local candidate, then a portion of the costs must be assigned to them even if those expenses are recorded as an in-kind donation.
I’d like to know what steps I should pursue now to continue the examination of this issue. (14 October 2015)

The agent tried to address my concerns and the last note I received was as follows:

Section 320 of the Canada Elections Act (Act) is clear:
Message must be authorized
320. A candidate or registered party, or a person acting on their behalf, who causes election advertising to be conducted shall mention in or on the message that its transmission was authorized by the official agent of the candidate or by the registered agent of the party, as the case may be.
This matter has been reviewed previously.  It is clear that this election advertising (literature) is distributed and paid for by the Conservative Party of Canada – thus the tag line of authorized by the Registered Agent for the Conservative Party of Canada. The tag line may be difficult to read, however the Act does not regulate the content of the advertising other that what is noted in Section 91 of the Act:
Publishing false statements to affect election results
91. No person shall, with the intention of affecting the results of an election, knowingly make or publish any false statement of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of a candidate or prospective candidate.
It may be noted that national advertising by a Party (any political party) may benefit a local candidate.  It may also be argued that advertising by a candidate may benefit a Party. Almost every advertising generated by a candidate will include their party’s logo.
In reviewing this matter, the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections is satisfied that the required information is contained on the advertising being discussed and its expense will be reported by the Party.  With regards to your complaint, we have reviewed the information you have provided and concluded that the circumstances as described do not appear to contravene any provisions of the Act, and as such, cannot be pursued by this Office. (14 October 2015)

Despite the best efforts of the representative from the Commissioner’s Office, I still believe that this direct mail piece stretched the limits of the regulations to the point of absurdity. It is not enough to simply include a tagline; it must be legible and clearly identifiable. I also believe that the local candidate’s name should appear on any directly distributed material since Canadians vote for Members of Parliament, not for party leaders.

Reema scans in the side of the direct mail piece attacking the Liberal Party of Canada.Minister Monsef, I urge you to initiate a process to review and amend the regulations of the Act that deal with the tagline and the identity of the sender. Such details are critical; they underpin the integrity of Canada’s voting system, whether as currently constituted or as altered for future elections.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter and I look forward to amended regulations which uphold the principles of transparency and integrity for election campaign materials.

Sincerely yours,

Reema Faris

cc.
Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, Elections Canada
Commissioner of Canada Elections
Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

 

2 Responses to The Indiscernible Tagline

  1. Nice catch, Reema! I completely agree. What if the piece had the tag line written in invisible ink only visible on heating? Would this still be acceptable? I think the investigators should apply the implicit requirement of legibility and at least publish a reprimand. This will help establish future norms.

    • Thank you for reading and for your comment. I agree that a norm has to be established beyond simply including a tagline. The regulations are clearly there because identification of the distributor is important. If identifying the distributor is so important, how can it be acceptable for the tagline to be illegible or, as in this case, virtually undetectable? I’m counting on a response and will post a follow-up when I receive one. Should be interesting!

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