When Stephen Harper was elected prime minister, he promised change, he promised reform, he promised better, more accountable government. That might sound like a tall order to some, but it really isn’t.
Indeed, here’s a quick and easy way the prime minister can get started: he can scrap a Liberal-enacted election law that makes free political expression in Canada a crime. I am talking about what is commonly referred to as the election gag law.
Enacted about six years ago by the former Chrétien government, the law imposes severe legal restrictions on how much money non-political parties can spend on “election advertising.” These limits are so low – $150,000 for national ad campaigns and only $3,000 for local ad campaigns – they make it virtually impossible for citizens or for independent, non-partisan groups to effectively communicate political ideas or opinions during elections.
In contrast, political parties can spend up to $30 million to promote their election agendas.
To make matters worse, the legal definition as to what actually constitutes “election advertising” is both broad and vague. It’s defined as either 1) any ad that supports or opposes a political party or candidate or 2) any ad that takes a stand on any issue that might be associated with a political party or candidate. In other words, virtually any kind of political statement you can think of would fall under the gag law umbrella.
For instance, the law certainly stifles any religious or church group wishing to run ad campaigns to support pro-life or pro-family candidates during elections.
The gag law also effectively silences citizens or groups that simply want to make sure issues that are important to them are debated at election time.
The gag law, for example, would essentially make it illegal to run effective ad campaigns raising important issues like abortion or same-sex “marriage,” even if those ad campaigns were non-partisan in nature. That’s because those issues are “associated” with political parties or candidates.
And any individual who dares to violate the gag law could be thrown into prison for up to five years.
Pretty scary, isn’t it?
Clearly, the gag law is a serious infringement on every citizen’s right to free expression. In a true democracy, all citizens should have the right to freely express opinions without fear of going to jail.
That’s why my group – the National Citizens Coalition – vigorously opposed the gag law in the courts. And although we succeeded in having provincial courts in Alberta rule the gag law unconstitutional, we ultimately and unfortunately lost at the Supreme Court of Canada. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court essentially ruled the gag law was needed to ensure a “level playing field” during elections.
It’s a bizarre argument when you consider the gag law, in fact, gives political parties and politicians a monopoly on election debate, while it forces everybody else to keep quiet.
That’s hardly a level playing field.
Yet, the Supreme Court may not have the final word on this because whatever laws politicians can enact, they can also be scrap. Now that Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative party are running the government, the gag law might be an endangered species. After all, before he was prime minister, Harper was president of the NCC and, in fact, initiated our legal challenge to the gag law.
So if anybody understands the dangers this law poses to our democratic system, it’s him.
In what I hope is a good sign, the recent Throne Speech included a promise to “examine the challenges facing Canada’s electoral system.” Perhaps this is a signal the gag law is on its last legs, because there can be no doubt this horribly undemocratic law does pose a challenge to our electoral system.
Of course, if Harper does scrap the gag law, it would anger many in the political establishment who don’t want to hear from Canadians at election time.
But who cares?
Prime Minister Harper has a mandate to reform our democracy and one of the best ways to do that is to restore free speech to all Canadians.
Gerry Nicholls is vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition. It’s website is www.morefreedom.org.