Super PACs: Not just for U.S. elections

With the emergence of organizations like Harper PAC and Engage Canada, some are worried that Canada is heading towards a culture of big-spending third party political interest groups. But we speak to an American who says Canadians should learn to love Super PACS because they invigorate democracy.
Would Canadian democracy be better if our political fundraising was more American? (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Third-party political advertising made the news this week, with the emergence of HarperPAC, an independent pro-Conservative campaign group. A similar organization called Engage Canada unveiled its ads this week, criticizing the economic record of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party.

These groups can be compared to American "SuperPACs", Political Action Committees that aren't attached to a politician, but independently raise and spend their own money. SuperPACs have plenty of critics in the United States, but they also have defenders.

Scott Blackburn is a Research Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics, a privately-funded First Amendment and campaign finance focused legal and advocacy group.
He says SuperPACs and their ads are a benefit to American democracy - and cautions Canada against too tightly restricting what third parties can do.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

You believe that these SuperPACs make democracy better. Make that case for us.

You are expanding the number of people who have influence. Generally, SuperPACs are outsiders. They're groups of people who are not connected politically, or are a group of politicians who are not in power. This is a downside for incumbent politicians. They don't want to hear from people who say "you're doing a bad job" or "you're doing terribly on this" or "your policy on the environment is bad". As such, I think it's a good thing for democracy when incumbent politicians are challenged from outside forces.

But aren't you also making it more difficult for poorer groups who would like to get their point of view out there as well, but can't afford the advertising?

Smaller groups are always going to have more difficulty getting funds and getting advertising. I think if you enable a SuperPAC where they can pool those resources into a single entity, they will have actually have more political power. But I think that limiting this particular avenue in no way promotes those other voices. I think that what you're doing is limiting it so only the government message or only the particularly santioned message is the one that comes through.

Tell us about some the attempts in the US to reduce the influence of SuperPACs.

There have been a number of attempts. Some have failed in congress, to sort of restrict the amount of money that is spent. A lot of people view SuperPACs, actually, as the inevitable result of previous attempts to restrict money in the system. So we installed stricter contribution limits, that has led in some ways to SuperPACs. We've installed stricter limits on how much money a political party can receive, the money has flowed to SuperPACs and other outside groups. I like of think of money as sort of a water-balloon.  If you push down on one aspect of it it's going to pop up somewhere else in the system, and I think that's happened a lot here. 

What kind of effect does all of that money have on the condition of your democracy?

I think that money has a positive impact in that it does promote voices. It does allow people to spendin the way they see fit. I think that there is so much money because of the general size and impact of the US government. I would say however that there is a surprisingly low amount of spending from what one might think of as influential groups. Corporations up until 2010 weren't able to give to SuperPACs. The Supreme Court changed that. Since that time however we've actually seen a very small amount of corporate money going to SuperPACs. Large corporations have given on the order of a couple million dollars. What we've seen instead is that ideological individuals have decided - I want to voice my say in the political process in a way I haven't been able to before - and that has led to a lot of the increases in funding.

How much of your feelings about SuperPACs relate to your feelings about freedom of speech? The idea that people - and groups of people - should be able to say whatever they want?

I think they're inextricably intertwined. I think that any time a group of people come together, they should be able to speak out on their personal message, particularly on politics, particularly when it's going against the current governmental regime.


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