In politics, like most other things, what goes around comes around.
One big difference in politics is that when it comes around, people forget the last time it went around.
Yes folks, selective memory laced with heavy doses of unabashed doublespeak is very much at play here on the eve of a provincial election.
Today’s theatre of the absurd features Bill 42, the Election Amendment Act aka British Columbia’s election gag law, which limits how much you can pay for your opinions to be aired, printed and distributed to the public during the run-up to an election.
This version of the gag law, produced by the Gordon Campbell Liberals, restricts third-party advertising in the upcoming election to $3,000 in a single electoral district and $150,000 province-wide for 88 days up to May 12, when we go to the polls.
Mess with the new Bill 42 and you could be fined 10 times the amount by which you exceed the spending limits.
This remake of the election gag law has all the same actors – the Liberals, the NDP, the unions and big business.
Even some of the legal representation is the same.
All the players, however, have switched roles.
The original version of B.C.’s election gag law was produced in the mid-nineties by the NDP, which was haunted by the specter of big business spending untold amounts to advertise how pin-striped socialists were destroying our economy.
Sub-plots then included donations to campaigns paid by labour kept secret while union officials were double dipping as full-time NDP employees collecting regular salaries from their company employers.
Here is how the gag law rhetoric went in the nineties . . .
THE NDP IN POWER: "The limit will prevent political parties from getting around campaign spending limits…We are talking about the right to vote without being fed lies and information not based on fact…The legislation will make provincial votes more democratic - not less… it’s to make sure that it isn’t the deepest pockets that get to win elections."
THE LIBERALS IN OPPOSITION: "A gag order on third-party interests is simply wrong…This government has a record of restricting freedom of speech…it’s disgraceful that a government is afraid to allow people to put forward their issues, afraid to allow people to do their advertising . . . afraid to duke it out for public opinion and have the public decide who they’re going to support in the next election."
JOE ARVAY, COUNSEL FOR THE GOVERNMENT: The Supreme Court of Canada already has ruled that spending limits on parties other than the candidates in an election are reasonable limitations on our freedoms…the high court has found the limits ‘laudable.’ If there are no limitations on third parties, the way is open for candidates to get around spending limits.
OUTCOME: The NDP’s law was struck down by the B.C. Supreme Court in 2000, but was left on the books.
Here is how the gag law rhetoric goes now . . .
THE LIBERALS IN POWER: "The idea is to keep the election focus on the candidates and political parties, instead of having third-party interests try to influence the outcome of the vote... it would be unfair to voters to allow outside groups to spend as much as they want to influence the election’s outcome…do we want undisciplined spending by third parties who may be in a position to hijack elections?"
THE NDP IN OPPOSITION: "It is essentially having a real chill on public discussion…It means we are going to virtually criminalize behaviour which is the fundamental foundation of any democratic society…an attack on the fundamental democratic principles of freedom of speech…This election gag-law severely limits the ability for individuals and organizations to speak out."
JOE ARVAY, COUNSEL CHALLENGING THE GOVERNMENT: The law is ‘unprecedented’ in Canada and restricts freedom of expression….the law was ‘anti-egalitarian’ in that it appears to target unions and their members, and prevents them from airing important health-care and education issues at a critical time…Bill 42 is an unprecedented assault on the institution of parliament itself and the most fundamental aspects of the democratic process.
OUTCOME: The courts have denied an application to have the law suspended pending a constitutional challenge.
Gag laws, never mind the architects, are inherently disgusting because freedom of information and freedom of speech are essential tools in a democracy.
Gag laws obfuscate rather than communicate.
Ultimately, the agenda is to control the message and mute the messenger.
If the Liberals and the NDP are serious about getting the truth out in British Columbia, try a gag law to stop political doublespeak.