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Say, there goes another of our 'fundamental rights.' Oh, well... Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 24 May 2004

Another bit of freedom perished last week. Quite a big chunk, in fact. But don't worry. Just pay your taxes, vote Liberal and shut up.

I'm talking about our Supreme Court's decision earlier this week to allow Parliament's election-spending gag law.

Passed in 2000, it says that during a federal election campaign you may hear only what politicians want you to hear--and a few newspaper columnists.

Politicians may pay to promote what they consider important. You may not.

After the Chretien law was passed, the National Citizens Coalition attacked it in court as unconstitutional. The feds lost twice in Alberta courts. They appealed again, this time to their own court on home ice in Ottawa. Guess who won, by a score of six to three.

It means that during the five-week writ, no individual or organization may spend more than $150,000 on political-type messages of any sort, and no more than $3,000 in any one federal riding.

These amounts are trivial - less than enough to buy one third-page ad in the major newspapers of Canada, or a solitary billboard in half the nation's ridings.

Meanwhile, politicians will spend $36 million on advertising in this election - and under another new law they'll force you the taxpayer to provide 90% of it.

So who will you not hear much from in this campaign? Greenpeace, the gay and lesbian folks, Planned Parenthood, Life Canada, the Canada Family Action Coalition, the National Citizens Coalition, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Democracy Watch, the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and, and, and.

There are dozens of such groups working for the public interest as they conceive it--though not necessarily as party politicians perceive it.

Which raises a vital question: who in Canada defines the public interest -- the public or the politicians?

We have allowed politicians to assign that task to themselves.

And of course, bad goes to worse. Having always denied competing groups equitable tax status, they now suppress free speech when people are choosing their government.

And for no good reason, the Supreme Court is letting them.

Reading the majority decision of the Supreme Court is an almost mind-numbing experience.

The judges freely admit that the government gave no evidence--zero--that interest-group advertising has ever led to smear campaigns, voter manipulation, or the "rich" running off with elections by "drowning out other voices."

But as politicians know, the "rich" do not buy elections, they buy the right cabinet minister when the election is over. It's way cheaper. The people who fund interest groups are mainly ordinary citizens, usually with amounts of $50 and $100.

However, the mere possibility that the "rich" someday "might" exert undue influence is enough for the Supreme Court to let Parliament cancel one of our "fundamental freedoms."

Our Charter right to free speech is obviously of no real importance to most of the judges in the Supreme Court. What I wonder is whether it's important to anyone else.

This law must not be allowed to stand.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.

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