NDP's gag law becomes even more repressive

People afraid of debate or who lack confidence in their own ideas inevitably try to shut down the opinions and advocacy of others.

Example: A few years back, I chatted with a young Conservative member of Parliament - he shall remain nameless as Chatham House rules were in effect - who defended his then government's gag on election-time advertising by so-called third parties.

The law, a holdover from the Liberal government of Jean Chretien and earlier versions, was once opposed by Stephen Harper.

In power, the Harper government liked how opposing voices would be mostly silenced during an election writ period. Their excuse was how the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario was regularly attacked by labour unions in past elections.

I told the MP that if he had any respect for fair play and free speech - elections are when everyone's voices should be heard - at least allow "third parties" to spend as much money as do political parties.

Federally, third party advocacy groups and others are each limited to less than one per cent of what political parties can spend (in 2015: $439,410, compared with $54 million allowed for each political party).

Tribal allegiances often overwhelm reason, and with it, the right to free expression. That brings us to another tribe: Alberta's NDP government.

It intends to further clamp down on political expression, advocacy and organizing, this via Bill 32. This is the government's latest attempt to squelch the activities of so-called third parties, including political action committees.

The bill builds on existing spending limits where third parties cannot spend more than $150,000 during an election. It will further restrict them to another $150,000 in the three months that precede the official campaign period.

Language check: "Third party" is a pejorative. The words imply people, alone or in groups, should be discouraged from involvement in elections unless they channel their money and time through politicians and their parties.

Political parties are a necessary, useful part of democracy. But not everyone cares to be involved in partisan politics. Ideas and causes are also important, be they focused on the environment, a labour issue, poverty, taxes, a business concern or multiple other matters. Some people thus prefer to focus on ideas, ones potentially ignored by politicians and parties, or those that crosscut all party lines.

Political parties, because they obviously desire to be elected, have an interest in shying away from idea debates. Taking a clear position costs votes.

That means citizens, alone or in a group, deserve their right to political expression: The freedom to assemble and spend money to reach fellow citizens, and precisely when most people pay attention: at and near elections.

It's a right that has regrettably been injured for decades by politicians, their antidemocratic media cheerleaders and even a few Supreme Court justices. Thus, the oft-heard argument that election-time spending should be controlled and effectively suppressed.

Predictably, those who dislike the messiness of democracy and free expression think citizens'groups are a "dark" threat to democracy rather than what they are: the very evidence of the messy out-workings of a liberal democracy.

To understand why the spending limits are so absurd, consider that it takes millions of dollars - or tens of millions - to reach millions of other citizens. But existing Alberta legislation and Bill 32 means that citizens can spend just $300,000 to reach the 2.6 million potential voters during or leading up to an election.

That equals 11 cents per potential voter.

The low limits for political parties are scarcely better, at $2 million. That allows for 77 cents per possible voter. Both limits thus reinforce the advantages of incumbents, or those who dislike idea debates at election time, or both.

Citizens don't need further restrictions on their right to political expression near or during elections. The limits should be significantly raised, or better yet, removed. 

~Mark Milke. Calgary Herald, A12, December 9, 2017, 

Mark Milke