Let’s Talk Taxes: Identify, don’t gag citizens during elections

Musings by Premier Stelmach coupled with a report by Alberta’s chief electoral officer have added up to a rare consensus among two of Alberta’s chief political rivals. When political enemies line-up in agreement it can often spell trouble.

By Scott Hennig:

Musings by Premier Stelmach coupled with a report by Alberta’s chief electoral officer have added up to a rare consensus among two of Alberta’s chief political rivals. When political enemies line-up in agreement it can often spell trouble. Last spring it was the Alberta NDP joining PC MLAs to approve political pay hikes, and this fall it appears the Liberals will be helping the government legislate a monopoly for politicians during election campaigns.

The Liberal’s support was made clear in their leader’s reaction to a recommendation by Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer, Lorne Gibson.

Gibson, who made over 180 recommendations in his final report on the 2008 provincial election, raised the issue of citizen advertising during elections. Although, he along with the politicians like to use the elitist term “third-party advertising” — insinuating that voters are mere bystanders in the democratic process.

Of course, the issue of citizen advertising during elections has come up across the country over the past few decades. Usually, it’s raised by thin-skinned politicians who can’t stand citizens attempting to inject issues and opinions into an election campaign.

And while a handful of provinces and the federal government have successfully enacted gag laws to silence citizens during elections, Alberta commendably protected free speech during elections.

That will all end this fall when Premier Stelmach introduces legislation to at best limit, and at worst, ban completely, the right for Albertans to advertise a political message during a provincial election.

This is a direct reaction to the union coalition, “Albertans for Change” ads that ran during the recent provincial election. The goofy ads cast Premier Stelmach in a negative light while famously whispering “no plan.” The ads were unsuccessful in unseating the PC government, and in fact “backfired” according to the premier.

Gibson’s recent recommendations on citizen advertising opened old wounds for Liberal leader Kevin Taft, who laughably blamed his party’s dismal electoral performance on backlash to the “Albertans for Change” campaign. Surely his failure had nothing to do with the 91 spending promises Taft made during the 28-day campaign. Nothing says “ready to govern” like driving around the province promising to cure all ills as soon as you get your hands on a government chequebook.

Regardless, Taft endorsed Stelmach’s gag law suggesting that citizen advertising “be regulated, limited or even abolished.” In fact, both Stelmach and Taft have endorsed legislation that is significantly more draconian than recommended by Alberta’s chief electoral officer.

Gibson suggests rather than “abolishing” or even limiting how much citizens can spend on advertising during elections, that the sponsors of the ads be required to clearly identify themselves, and that they follow the same donation rules as politicians.

While some of Gibson’s recommendations are a bit over-bearing and will create needless red tape, he does rightly pinpoint the issue that annoyed most people with the union ads.

The ads merely identified the sponsor as “Albertans for Change.” Only those who took the time (and had access) to look-up the unknown group on-line would discover it was in fact a coalition of various public sector unions. Using a nebulous moniker to disguise your true source is deceitful and as Gibson suggests, should not be allowed.

But Gibson’s suggestion to identify the sponsors of the ads would have fixed that problem, and it wouldn’t infringe on Albertans’ free speech.

The type of law Stelmach and Taft endorse (limiting or banning citizens from advertising) would go well beyond the recommendations of the chief electoral officer. But more importantly, they would take away Albertan’s fundamental right of freedom of expression. Hopefully, Stelmach and Taft realize this before they quietly conspire to damage Alberta democracy for good.