Thursday, June 17, 2004

Democracy Watch: like what you're seeing?

Believers in the Law of Unintended Consequences are being treated to an edifying spectacle, as the impact of the "Harper v. Canada" decision is playing out predictably.

To recap briefly, after the 2000 election, the Liberal government drafted amendments to the Elections Act limiting "third-parties", i.e. everyone besides the political parties, to spending $1,000 per riding or $150,000 nationally during an election campaign. The National Citizen's Coalition, led at the time by Stephen Harper, challenged the law in court. On May 18th of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the new provisions 6-3, reasoning in part that there is "a danger that political advertising may manipulate or oppress the voter."

Several obvious problems with this that were immediately identifiable:
1) Many people's interests are not identical to that of any political party
2) Even supporters of a particular party may not have their specific concerns addressed by the party during an election campaign, nor should a political party be expected to represent all the individual concerns of its supporters
3) There is no evidence that a Canadian federal election has ever been "bought", in fact the 1988 (Free Trade Agreement) election and the Charlottetown Referendum are evidence to the contrary
4) Canadian voters are more discerning than a 4-year-old watching commercials for sugar cereal

Responding to an editorial in the National Post pointing out that political parties would have a de facto monopoly on electoral debate, Mr. Aaron Cooper of intervenor Democracy Watch wrote, "This would only be half-true if the media completely neglected to cover the views of interest groups and individuals on various issues."

Well, guess what? In a surprising development, the media has neglected to cover the views of interest groups and individuals on various issues. And frankly, why should they? Their job is to sell newspapers and get high TV ratings, not ensure so-called "fairness" in election campaigns. Of course, Mr. Cooper did suggest one method of getting your message out that doesn't require a friendly or pliant media - "shout it from the rooftops."

In what I suppose is an appropriate twist of fate, the people most affected now by the restrictions are Liberal supporters who desperately want to defeat the Conservatives - labour unions, the "Canadian Culture" crowd, etc. Because the Liberals (and the other parties) have chosen to essentially ignore culture as an election issue, it isn't one. Margaret Atwood is scared of the CPC, there's a Globe article on it, that's it. Sonja Smits and two dozen other actors hold a press conference warning us about potential cuts under the CPC, the CBC does 90 seconds on it, that's it. Sorry folks, if neither the parties nor the media are interested enough in your issue to push aside whatever else they were going to talk about, then head up to the rooftop.

What an abominable situation to find ourselves in, in a purported democracy. Thanks to a law whose purported intent was "that wealth should not be used to drown out the voices of ordinary Canadians in an election", ordinary Canadians can only be heard with the leave of multi-billion dollar media conglomerates, or a party war room that uses issues as a backup plan.

Stephen Harper has promised to repeal these restrictions if elected, and if he is, let's hope it's Bill C-1. Beyond that, a snarky suggestion to the CanCon crowd: "freedom of expression" isn't just about making ugly art and denouncing George Bush. You were lazily silent when this law was enacted and upheld, but you should note dutifully: if you are willing to promote freedom of expression even when it's not to your obvious advantage, you will be taken much, much more seriously.

UPDATE: Trudeaupia acknowledges the irony as well.


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