The Supreme Court of Canada photograph by Philippe Landreville

You can vote … you just can’t think, speak or spend

Ottawa - Tuesday, September 9, 2003 - by: Walter Robinson, Federal Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation


This week the Supreme Court of Canada granted leave to the federal government to appeal an Alberta court ruling which struck down controversial portions — aka: the gag law — of the Canada Elections Act. No time has yet been set when the highest court in the land will hear this case, but the sooner the better.




At issue is official Ottawa’s belief that it can trample on citizens and citizens groups’ basic constitutional freedom of expression during an election period by limiting the amount of money such groups can spend. As well, our “big brother” federal government wants these groups to disclose their sources of election funding and violate the privacy and right of individuals to freely associate.




The federal government would have you believe that spending to communicate positions on issues by so-called “third parties” — a pejorative term in the extreme chosen specifically to malign taxpayer groups, unions, chambers of commerce, community associations, the local 4-H club and others — exerts and undue influence and perverts the democratic process.




In effect, the federal government is saying to voters,


“we believe you are stupid so we will protect you stupid voters from the spending and message of evil ‘lobby groups’ that want to control your minds and force you to cast a ballot against your will.”
  Preposterous? Yes. But such is the Orwellian logic of the gag law.


But here’s the rub. In the bizarre world view of the federal Liberals (including Paul Martin who supports this law), spending by political parties and candidates — and lots of it to the tune of tens of millions of dollars — is okay to influence debate and discussion but if ordinary citizens or citizens groups want to speak out, they’re limited to a maximum of $3,000 per riding or $150,000 nationally.




So much for an electoral contest being an arena where ideas are discussed and debated. The notion that the only issues to be discussed must be fostered or sanctioned by political parties is obscene. Elections are for voters, not for political parties. This is not democracy … this is political censorship and the thin edge of the very dangerous wedge of totalitarianism


  Recent Canadian experience shows that massive spending does not unduly influence electoral outcomes. In 1988, pro free-trade supporters outspent their opponents, but a majority of Canadians still voted for parties opposed to free trade. In the 1992 referendum, the YES side in favour of the Charlottetown Accord dropped 13 times as much coin as the No side, yet the accord still failed.
  Kudos to the National Citizens Coalition for fighting this battle for almost two decades. On four separate occasions, lower courts have rightly struck down incarnations of the gag law as unconstitutional.
  Looking ahead, we can take some solace in the fact that the Supreme Court on the one hand has deemed this issue to be of national importance in their decision to hear the case. On the other hand, it is truly sad when you consider that our tax dollars will pay for Ottawa to go to court to trample the most fundamental constitutional freedom in a democratic system, our freedom of expression.
  Individual freedoms should only be curtailed when it can be proven beyond all doubt that they infringe upon the constitutional freedoms of others. Participation by citizens and citizens groups in an electoral democracy is fundamental to strengthening debate and does not interfere with anyone’s right of citizenship to cast an informed ballot.
  It is lamentable that Canadians as a whole are blasé and disengaged from this issue and that we have to go to the courts to defend our most basic constitutional freedom at all.

Walter Robinson
Federal Director



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