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Enter Stage Gabbing

Enter Stage Gabbing

Vote, but don't ask questions

The ProfessorBy Steven Martinovich

(May 24, 2004) Canadians, it seems, are a very reasonable people. Last Tuesday the Supreme Court upheld government imposed spending caps by lobby groups during federal elections despite acknowledging that those caps infringed on free speech rights guaranteed by the Charter. The high court ruled that despite that, the caps are a reasonable limit on our freedom.

At issue were amendments to the Canada Elections Act passed by the Chrétien government in 2000. Lobby groups can spend no more than $150 000 nationally and $3 000 in any one riding on advertising that "promotes or opposes a registered party or the election of a candidate, including by taking a position on an issue with which the registered party or candidate is associated." Anyone who violates the law faces large fines or up to five years in prison.

Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Michel Bastarache justified the ruling on the grounds that it was necessary to ensure fairness in campaigning and to encourage public confidence in the electoral process. By contrast to the meager amounts that lobby groups are limited to, a federal party is able to spend $36 million while each candidate can spend $75 000 at the riding level. This doesn't include the free time candidates receive from broadcasters, time that they are forced to give up by government regulations.

High-minded language is used to defend the amendments, with its supporters declaring that without the caps Canadian elections will eventually mirror their American counterparts in negativity and cost. That's a circle that's a bit hard to square if you consider that lobby groups are limited to four-tenths of one percent of what politicians can spend and have to raise the money themselves, while politicians and parties are able to spend tens of millions and receive subsidies from taxpayers.

Aaron Freeman of the ironically named Democracy Watch hailed the ruling as a victory for average Canadians at the expense of the wealthy, declaring that, "In our view this is a freedom-of-speech issue for wealthy people." Except, of course, that it wasn't. As the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pointed out, average Canadians are also affected. Any grassroots group of citizens has to register with the Chief Elections Officer if they plan on spending more than $500 on advertising.

"Some local environmentalists wanting to spend $525 on lawn signs to raise awareness about toxins in a creek must appoint a leader and a financial agent, both of whom must register themselves with the Chief Electoral Officer or face penalties for violating the Canada Elections Act," says CTF director John Carpay.

Regardless of the justifications used to support election gag laws, and some of its supporters freely admit that gag laws are an infringement on free speech -- but one that's reasonable in their eyes, the simple fact is that they are an infringement of our constitutional rights. By forcing citizens and groups to register with Elections Canada, and there is little in the law saying that your registration must be accepted, and limiting how much they can spend to get their message out, the government is regulating speech at a time when discussion is most necessary.

As Gerry Nicholls of the National Citizens Coalition -- the group that launched the court fight -- stated last year, "[T]he stakes in this case are high. The outcome will determine whether elections will be a free-market place of competing ideas or tightly controlled and regulated affairs where bureaucrats and politicians have more rights than citizens." Thanks to the Supreme Court, elections are now nearly the exclusive province of politicians and the media. You're welcome to cast your ballot but don't bother joining with other Canadians to ask tough questions of your representatives unless you're willing to severely limit your efforts.

The real purpose of the amendments were to do just that; to protect politicians -- especially those used to staying in power -- from the uncomfortable questions that Canadians and the organizations that represent them like to ask during election campaigns. Canadians have a right, to steal a line from the Charter, to peace, order and good government. As long, however, as they don't spend too much money ensuring it. We are, after all, a reasonable people.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich


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