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Monday, May 12, 2008

Who's defending political speech in Alberta?

The Calgary Herald reports that Ed Stelmach and the Alberta government plan to introduce a package of campaign finance legislation this fall that would either ban or strictly limit spending on political advertising by civil society organizations during elections. In the March provincial election Albertans for Change, funded by a number of labour unions including the Alberta Federation of Labour ran ads attacking Steady Eddie for having "no plan."
The opposition political parties both seem to support the spending limitations, ostensibly based on the lofty principle of jealousy:

"NDP Leader Brian Mason said it's unfair that unions could outspend his party on TV ads by a more than 10-to-one margin.
'The main conversation that took place in the election was not between the opposition parties and the government -- it was between Albertans for Change and the government'; Mason said. 'And I think that had a serious impact on the election.'
...Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said the Albertans for Change ads may have hurt his party.
'We had nothing to do with that spending whatsoever,' Taft said. 'And yet, on the doorsteps, we were often getting lectures about how 'You guys are running those terrible attack ads on Ed Stelmach.' So we got dragged into it.'
While Albertans for Change was essentially delivering the same message as his party, Taft said their involvement could set an ugly precedent.
'I mean, they've opened the door now. What's to prevent next time any group from advancing all kinds of extreme views? I think we have to think that through.'"

Civil-society organizations are limited to about  $172,500 of spending during Federal Elections, and Ottawa busybodies like Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch want to bring the same type of limitations to Alberta. Conacher, exercising his skills in deductive logic, explains that "if you believe in one person, one vote, you should be limiting what any one person can spend in politics." If I may paraphrase the democracy expert "democracy is a system where you get your one vote and then shut up."

At present, the loudest voice opposing Stelmach's plan belong to the labour unions which aired the ads in the recent elections. However, we should remember that it's not only unions pushing their lefty issues who use the opportunity of elections to raise important issues, among the other groups which aired ads this March were the NCC who criticized those very unions for not disclosing to members how much of their union dues were being spent on attack ads and faulted the Alberta government for implementing the oil and gas royalties program and choking the economy–on this issue it seems like Stelmach's government might have even heard the message. Before the fall, Stelmach and the Progressive Conservatives need to hear from Alberta citizens that we do not support the stifling of our free speech, we do not support our exclusion from the political process, and we will not cede a virtual monopoly on political speech to the parties.

(H/T Liberty in Canada)

Posted by Kalim Kassam on May 12, 2008 in Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


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As with, unfortunately, so many people who comment on Canadian political and societal issues, Kalim Kassam doesn't know the basic rules of logic, nor the actual effect of the laws Kassam comments on.

So while Kassam may, of course, exercise the right of free speech to paraphrase my quotation from the CanWest News Service article published in the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal on Friday, Kassam does not have the right to paraphrase what I said completely inaccurately (as that is illogical (as well as unethical, undemocratic and, frankly, unintelligent).

To explain, my quotation was "If you believe in one person, one vote, you should be limiting what any one person can spend in politics." Kassam says this is analogous to saying ""democracy is a system where you get your one vote and then shut up."

Sorry, false analogy. I was talking explicitly about limiting spending in politics, not speaking.

Kassam claims that the federal law creates "a virtual monopoly a virtual monopoly on political speech" for political parties. First of all, it would be an oligopoly, given that there is more than one party in Alberta. But more importantly, Kassam is completely wrong.

In fact, anyone and any group, under the federal law limiting spending on paid advertising during election campaign periods, can express their views through news conferences, news releases, media interviews, op-eds, letters to the editor, educational events, websites, emails, and newsletters and mailings to group members.

In addition, under the federal law, anyone and any organization can spend up to about $175,000 on national paid advertising.

National newspaper ads in the National Post cost from about $6,500 (quarter-page) to $26,000 (full-page), and in the Globe and Mail from $16,000 to $64,000.

And, for example, a 30-second national TV ad during a hockey game on CBC-TV costs about $28,000, during Air Farce about $4,500, and during the morning news or "Politics" show about $120, while a 30-second national ad on CTV costs from $1,400 (late night) to $21,000 (Sunday prime time) to at top level of $86,000.

So, in fact, a group or individual could run an extensive series of national print and TV ads (depending on production costs and when the ads ran) without coming even close to violating the law.

As with all other defenders of allowing wealthy interests to spend whatever they want in the political marketplace, Kassam completely undermines his argument by making false claims and using false analogies.

They clearly have difficulty making their case in an honest manner, which is pretty much always a sign that someone doesn't have much of a case to make.

At least Kassam doesn't use the usual self-contradictory claim used by those who attack limits on paid advertising, namely that "ads don't affect voters so, therefore, there is no need to limit spending on ads." If ads don't affect voters, then why do people run them? And if they don't affect voters, then there should be no problem limiting them either.

In its 2004 ruling upholding the law, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that limiting spending by so-called "third-parties" is important for three reasons: "(1) to promote equality in the political discourse; (2) to protect the integrity of the financing regime applicable to candidates and parties; and (3) to ensure that voters have confidence in the electoral process."

The Supreme Court properly concluded that whether or not ads affect election outcomes, they can affect election debates (a point Hoy neglects to mention). If spending on ads by the tens thousand or so interest groups in Canada was unlimited, the wealthiest groups (mainly corporations and unions) and wealthy individuals would have a much greater capacity to drive the election in the direction of their interests, and also to attack specific candidates whose total campaign spending limit ranges between $16,000 and $86,000 (depending on the number of voters in their riding - the average limit is about $55,000).

In every poll conducted in the past 15 years, about 80% of Canadians have expressed concern about wealthy people and organizations using money to have more influence over government than others.

The federal ad spending limit effectively addresses this concern in a democratic way by restricting, but not banning, paid speech -- essentially extending the fundamental democratic election principle of "one person, one vote" to the area of ad spending during elections.

Duff Conacher, Coordinator
Democracy Watch

Posted by: Duff Conacher | 2008-05-12 3:15:00 PM

The supreme court seems to be assuming that we are not capable of making up our own minds based on the information we have, from whatever the source. I for one, prefer that organizations like yours do not look out for my best interest.

It is not so much an argument that should be based on whether or not the advertising works, but whether or not freedoms should be restricted. Period.

The supreme court may have upheld the law but it doesn't make the law right.

Posted by: TM | 2008-05-12 3:44:15 PM

If there was, in fact, a direct relationship between money spent on advertising and a candidate's ultimate success ... then there would be no US president other than one from the Republican Party.

Posted by: set you free | 2008-05-12 4:10:49 PM

So somtimes there it works and sometimes it doesn't. It still comes down freedom.

Posted by: TM | 2008-05-12 4:24:26 PM

Spot on TM. Sorry Duff but there is no justification or defence of this, for it is another restriction of freedom. It is another mechanism for certain ones or parties to cling to power - in other words greed.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-05-12 5:16:45 PM

Government placing limits on election spending is not democratic, any more than government limiting the kind and quantity of books available to the public. Limits on election spending put limits on public thought.

Posted by: dewp | 2008-05-12 5:19:11 PM

This combined with the AB HRC being moved from Tourism, Recreation, and Parks to the new Department of Culture and Community Spirit ensures that the AB Gov't has no intention of doing their part in defending free speech. A quasi-judicial body and Community Spirit in the same department is a joke.

In fact, what has come out (or not) post election has all the makings of incrementally continuing to decrease freedom speech and ensure even more Official Political Correctness and control by minority rule. This is not to mention libel chill moving towards libel freeze.

Posted by: calgary clipper | 2008-05-12 8:49:15 PM

We have a similar problem in BC - with the government responding to massive union-backed electoral efforts by launching a blanket ban against Third Party advertising instead of tackling the real problem - the abuse of member dues by unions for rankly partisan purposes.

Of course, I'd argue that these sorts of laws are of little real effect given that:

1) No one really watches political ads anymore.

2) Those few that do get play do so because they are picked up and aired for free in newscasts.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-05-12 11:07:22 PM

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