Government legislation limiting election advertising is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of some British Columbians who say the new law is nothing more than a gag order.
Bill 42 came into effect Feb 13 in an attempt to prevent big business, unions and other organizations from hijacking provincial elections with expensive advertising campaigns. The act builds on an earlier version passed in 1995.
“The limits are consistent with the principles articulated by the Supreme Court of Canada that are aimed at ensuring the voice of any citizen is not drowned out by those who have the resources to engage in expensive election campaigns,” BC Attorney General Wally Oppal said in a May 27, 2008 press release issued following public consultation of the bill.
“We saw in the last election third parties spending millions of dollars leading up to the election and at least $3 million more during the campaign period itself. These changes are aimed at preventing our system from drifting towards an American-style election system that demands expensive advertising campaigns in order to effectively engage in democratic discourse.”
Bill 42 sets limits on how much third party advertisers can spend and requires them to officially register with Elections BC. A third party advertiser is defined as anyone who directly or indirectly supports or opposes a registered candidate or political party, tied to a message about how to vote.
“Our position is clearly that it is a gag law,” says Christine Ackermann, a volunteer with Renters at Risk, which protests West End evictions and advocates on behalf of tenants more generally.
“Renters at Risk is a small grassroots group. We have no money. We don’t give money to any parties. We try to be as non-partisan as possible and yet somehow we still have to register? It’s crazy.”
It does not cost money to register but groups must get their forms sworn before either a notary, a lawyer, or at the offices of Elections BC, then track and submit records of all their advertising expenses to be made public along with their name and contact information.
“It’s had a huge impact on us and it’s going to have a huge impact on the average citizen,” predicts Ackermann.
“We shouldn’t be censored this way,” she says. “There should be no reason to track us just because we want to say something about the government.”
According to Ackermann, even spending 10 cents to photocopy a poster for the laundry room expressing concern about transit or other issues means she must register or risk fines and the possibility of being barred from registering again.
Holding a rally for gay rights or to protest a gaybashing could also be construed as election advertising between now and May 12 if a politician attends the rally, she says.
“As soon as a politician assigns himself to that issue, you — by definition of this law — have now conducted election advertising and must be registered,” she says. “It totally affects this community. Anybody who takes any interest in any issue and puts up any notice about it, you are conducting election advertising.”
Vancouver-Burrard NDP MLA Spencer Herbert is among those concerned about the new law.
While the law previously applied to only 29 days before the election, the extended period of Bill 42 (which now requires registration 120 days before an election is called) means the government may be shielded from criticism over the budget or the throne speech, Herbert points out.
“If you have concerns about the budget, you may not even be thinking about the election but just concerned about the budget because it hammers you or your organization or what you do. You can’t say anything about it or hold a rally about it or anything unless you register as an election advertiser. So it really does hamper free speech,” says Herbert, who is gay.
Herbert, who was elected in last October’s by-election, adds that he’s already seeing the effect of the legislation in his conversations with constituents.
“There’s a chill that’s been sent. People are afraid that they’re going to break this law because they don’t understand it or that they won’t be able to get their message out because the limits are so low,” says Herbert, noting that third party advertisers may now only spend $3,000 in a single constituency or $150,000 throughout the province throughout the entire campaign.
“Basically any group that talks to me, I’ve found them much more reticent and much more concerned about their ability to raise their issues,” he says.
“I can’t see how it’s not designed to stifle debate or designed to give the BC Liberal Party a free ride from basically three months before an election to do whatever they want and have very little criticism allowed,” Herbert charges.
The Liberal Party is not the only one to introduce third party election spending limits. The NDP had previously wanted to introduce even more restrictive third party rules, but Herbert maintains those restrictions would have applied only to the 30-day period before the election.
Critics of this government and its new legislation may feel it stifles their voices, but Elections BC points out that the BC Liberals must abide by the same rules.
“We apply the law fairly and equally. The law does not take sides and state what people can or cannot say,” says Kenn Faris, event communications manager for Elections BC.
A spokesperson for Oppal’s office referred Xtra West to the May 2008 press release when asked to arrange an interview with the attorney general.