All voices deserve a say during elections: Third-party spending restrictions will ensure political parties the only game in town

Provincial NDP Leader Brian Mason thinks it's unfair that unions outspent his party on television advertising by a margin of more than 10 to one in the recent provincial election.

"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 told The Journal on Thursday.

Just whose fault was that? The government's? Albertans for Change's? Or our sad-sack opposition parties'?

I'll grant it's odd that the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the United Nurses of Alberta and the Alberta Building Trades Council chose to form a front group -- Albertans for Change (AFC) -- to present voters with their case against the long-standing Tory government, rather than throwing their money -- estimated at $2 million -- and organization might behind Mason's party.

But the very fact the unions did not support their traditional allies in the NDP shows precisely why a gag law limiting advertising by third parties -- special interests, unions, citizen organizations, etc. -- would be a threat to democracy, rather than an enhancement of it.

In the coming weeks, if the Tory government goes ahead with a bill curtailing ads such as those by the AFC, expect all those in favour to claim it is necessary to preserve our democracy.

But don't believe a word of it.

If Mason's NDP had offered unions the solid chance they were seeking to unseat the Tories, the unions would have backed the NDP. But the unions looked at the two opposition parties on the left -- the Liberals and the NDP -- and decided neither was capable of upsetting the Tory government that organized labour so despises. So they chose instead to form their own umbrella organization, the purpose of which was to convince Albertans to vote for some party other than the Tories.

Thankfully, we live in the one province left in all of Canada where groups of voters such as AFC can still legally launch their own campaign for change during elections. In every other province (and federally), such an independent advertising strategy would have been prohibited. Severe restrictions on third-party ads during elections have given the registered parties a monopoly over the agenda.

Hence Mason's whiney complaint dressed up as a defence of fairness in elections is really a demand for spending laws that ensure parties and their leaders are the only game in town during elections. If Alberta has a gag law in place by the next provincial election, the unions will be forced to funnel their money through a party or parties or forget about trying to have an impact on the outcome.

Why are so many people in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada convinced that elections must be the exclusive purview of official political parties or otherwise they are unfair?

I can understand why party leaders have swallowed this tripe: It serves their selfish interests. Third-party advertising bans ensure parties have no competition for voter attention. Issues the parties don't want raised don't get raised because no one other than the official political parties is permitted enough advertising on television or radio or in newspapers to raise voters' awareness.

Why shouldn't groups of dissatisfied citizens be permitted the same spending limits as official parties?

We are told by the parties, the courts and ethics watchdogs that gag laws prevent Big Money from buying elections, that they preserve a level playing field. But level for whom?

Gag laws give official parties monopolies over debate during the most crucial event in a democracy -- an election.

If such laws level the field, it is only for official parties, not for official parties and third parties and ordinary citizens.

What if you are a voter on the right who favours massive tax cuts, but the only party on the right is so eager to prove itself moderate that it won't advocate the depth of cuts you favour? The parties on the left aren't going to take up your case, so you and others who agree with you are shut out of the debate when only parties are permitted to spend significant sums on ads.

Similarly, what if you are on the left and you believe free trade must be ended but no left-of-centre party is prepared to go so radical? How do you ensure your issue is debated if all the parties can ignore you?

Perhaps low voter turnout is connected to the lack of alternatives the official parties offer. Gags laws would only make that apathy worse.

Finally, consider how foolish it is of the Stelmach government to propose third-party spending limits right after an election in which Alberta witnessed the biggest third-party campaign in its history and yet the government that was the target of the ads was returned with an expanded majority.

If ever you needed proof that gag laws are unnecessary, our recent provincial election is it.

Massive third-party spending failed to sway voters when they didn't want to be swayed.

Money doesn't automatically buy elections.

Edmonton Journal, Sun May 11 2008
Byline: Lorne Gunter

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