I hate to interrupt all the political attack ads and partisan sniping by discussing an actual issue.
But Canadians need to understand something about the ongoing federal election.
It isn’t truly free.
In fact, Canada has not had a truly free federal election for years.
What am I talking about?
Well, since the year 2000 we have had in place what I like to call an “election gag law”.
This gag law (its part of the Canada Elections Act) impose severe legal restrictions on how much money citizens or independent groups can spend on “political advertising” during federal elections.
And according to the law, “political advertising” includes any ads that support or oppose a political party or candidate or which simply take a stand on any issue that might be associated with any political party or candidate.
The gag law, in short, makes it virtually impossible for unions, environmental groups, church organizations, taxpayer advocates, or for any group or individual to effectively or freely express political opinions at election time -- the most crucial period of any democracy.
Or to put it another way, gag laws give politicians and political parties a monopoly on election debate -- everybody else has to shut up and watch from the political sidelines.
This is bad for democracy.
Election debate should not be exclusively the domain of political parties.
Citizens too should have the right to engage in the market place of ideas. They should have the right to criticize political parties and to promote issues they believe need to be discussed during elections.
And often the only effective way for citizens to make their voices heard is through paid advertising – TV spots, radio commercials and newspaper ads.
Thanks to the election gag law that’s no longer an effective option.
That’s why this election is not truly free. To be blunt, election gag laws infringe on the right to free democratic speech.
And not just for those who may wish to advertise, but for all Canadians.
Free speech, after all, is a two way street. It means not only having the right to speak, but also to listen.
The gag law ensures Canadian voters won’t have the opportunity to hear different ideas or opinions from non-political parties.
Again, that’s bad for democracy.
Proponents of gag laws insist they are necessary to ensure “fair” elections. They say without them the “rich” will buy votes.
But that’s nonsense. Canadians make their decisions on the issues and facts not on who runs the most glitzy ad campaigns or on who spends the most money.
Recall during the debate in 1990 over the Charlottetown Accord. The “Yes” side outspent the “No” side more than 10 to one and still lost in a landslide.
So much for the money buying votes argument.
Of course, the real reason politicians like gag laws is it allows them to set the national agenda. They can discuss the issues they want to discuss without pesky independent voices upsetting the apple cart.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a terrible decision, ruled in 2004 that gag laws were constitutional.
That means it’s up to politicians to scrap these laws.
Happily, Prime Minister Stephen Harper understands the dangers of denying free expression. In fact, while president of the National Citizens Coalition he led the constitutional battle opposing the 2000 gag law.
And while running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, he even signed a pledge to repeal the gag law should he ever form a government.
The fact that he has not done so yet is likely due to his running a minority government. Should he win a majority, however, I fully expect and hope he will keep that pledge.
What’s more, if the Liberals form the next government I would expect their leader, Michael Ignatieff, to consider at least reforming the gag law. He is, after all, making protecting democracy a key plank in his election platform.
And I can’t think of a better way of protecting democracy than by restoring free election speech to all Canadians.