Canada's new Elections Act: Big Brother tramples on freedoms

By Walter Robinson
web posted June 1999

Recently, the Canadian government tabled its long-awaited reforms to the Canada Elections Act. And as predicted, they propose to limit advertising by so-called "third parties" during elections.

The father of this law, Government House Leader Don Boudria, has noted that the principles of "fairness, transparency and accessibility" lie at the core of the proposed legislation.

What is fair about limiting the constitutional freedom of expression of citizen advocacy groups (not the pejorative third party term that Mr. Boudria expounds with partisan glee) during election campaigns? Groups like us or labour unions, charities, professional associations, and even individual citizens will be severely limited in promoting their point of view during an election.

While political parties can spend almost $20 million (national and constituency campaigns) during an election, everyone else will be limited to a paltry $150 000 nationally with a maximum of $3 000 per riding.

While this amount may seem large, it is not. A group that wishes to advertise in all 301 ridings will be restricted to $498.33 per riding. In some ridings you can't even buy one half-page ad in a weekly newspaper for this amount.

This limit effectively shuts out all groups except political parties from truly communicating during a campaign. Meanwhile, candidates can spend on average between $60 000 and $80 000 per riding. So if you're a registered party, member- ship definitely has its privileges.

Listening to the open line shows in the last few days, Canadians seem prepared to support such draconian measures. Earth to taxpayers: wake up and give your heads a shake. During the next campaign there may be a federal issue in your riding (an airport expansion, military base shutdown, or federal government office relocation) which affects you or your neighbourhood directly.

If the candidates choose to ignore the issue you will only be allowed to spend $3 000 to get your message out. A few newspaper ads and a radio spot and your budget has been blown. Mr. Boudria thinks this is fair, we don't!

According to Mr. Boudria, spending by groups other than political parties could "favour those with the deepest campaign coffers, lead to abuses, corruption.and generally harm democratic objectives." But the evidence proves otherwise.

During the Charlottetown referendum the YES side outspent the NO side by a ratio of 13 to 1. But the NO side won. And last month in Ontario, a variety of unions and social activist coalitions spent millions of dollars to oppose the Harris government. But the Harris government was given another mandate and actually increased its percentage of the popular vote.

As noted above, there is no compelling evidence that spending affects voting outcomes at the provincial or federal level. Academic studies serve to buttress this observation. An informed ballot is best cast in an environment where information flows freely, both those opinions that one supports and those that one may abhor. Healthy debate is essential for a democratic society and what is being proposed in the new Elections Act is undemocratic.

There are other troubling measures proposed in this law such as banning public-opinion polls near voting day or increasing donation amounts (still eligible for 75 per cent tax rebates as opposed to charities being stuck at 17 per cent).

But the most dangerous changes clearly lie in unduly limiting the rights of citizen advocacy groups and individual citizens to exercise their constitutional freedom of expression. George Orwell was right about the menace of Big Brother and it is poised to happen in Canada.

Walter Robinson is the Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation which can be found at http://www.taxpayer.com.

 

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