Gerry Nicholls

All parties agree: Free speech is bad

Special to The Globe and Mail

(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Despite their partisan differences, the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP all seem to agree on one thing: free political speech is bad and should therefore be limited, regulated and strictly curtailed.

Indeed, three MPs – Conservative John Baird, New Democrat Pat Martin and Liberal John McKay – recently defended the need to squelch free expression.

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Mind you, they didn’t exactly put it that way.

Rather, they all concurred that Canadian democracy was better than the American variety because our election laws severely restrict the ability of Canadians to spend their own money for the purpose of expressing their own opinions.

For instance, Canada has an “election gag law.”

Enacted by the Liberals in 2000, this law makes it illegal for “third party groups”– meaning any organization that’s not a political party – to spend more than about $150,000 on national political ad campaigns during federal elections.

For their part, the Conservatives passed a law that stops citizens from contributing more than a $1,200 annually to a political party or leadership candidate. (And, yes, contributing money to a political party is an exercise in political expression.)

At any rate, Mr. Baird, Mr. Martin and Mr. Mackay, all believe these laws make Canada superior to the United States, which has relatively fewer infringements on free political expression.

Yet, I suspect these MPs have not really thought through their opinions.

Take, for instance, Mr. Baird.

He boasted to the media about how the Conservative government has “taken the influence of big money out of politics.”

Well, maybe somebody should explain to Mr. Baird that his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, once vehemently opposed the idea of restricting the ability of citizens to spend money on politics.

Indeed, when Mr. Harper headed the National Citizens Coalition he actually challenged the election gag law in the courts, arguing it violated the Charter guaranteed right to free expression.

What’s more, if Mr. Baird is so concerned about the “influence of big money” in politics, why does his government spend millions and millions of tax dollars on thinly veiled pro-Conservative propaganda ad campaigns?

I am talking, of course, about those costly and slick media blitzes extolling the wonders of the “Economic Action Plan.”

Next, let’s consider Mr. McKay, the Liberal. He was reportedly appalled at the billions of dollars that were estimated to have been spent in the recent U.S. election.

He called it “obscene” and said “to think that money doesn’t influence politics is naive in the extreme.”

Yet it’s also naive to believe the Harper government imposed tough limits on political contributions for the good of democracy. More likely the real purpose was much less noble: Mr. Harper wants to drive the cash-strapped Liberal Party into bankruptcy.

Perhaps Mr. McKay has forgotten that thanks to the strict contribution limits, several of the candidates in the last Liberal leadership race went deep into debt, a debt some candidates are still struggling to pay off after six years.

Is that good for democracy?

And finally there’s New Democrat Mr. Martin. He is quoted as saying, “I thank God every day that we live in this egalitarian society where a guy like me, a carpenter, can aspire to be a Member of Parliament because our spending limits are $70,000.”

Certainly that’s a charming working class hero attitude; but perhaps Mr. Martin should consider that spending limits actually give the Conservatives an unfair advantage.

Think about it. While Mr. Martin is spending his $70,000, the Conservative government is spending $8-million on ads to sell Canadians on its plan to cut old age benefits.

Plus, the election gag law impairs the ability of progressive groups like unions, environmental organizations and poverty activists to get their messages out to Canadians.

All this helps the Tories.

So maybe Mr. Martin should stop thanking God for spending limits and start praying for more freedom.

Gerry Nicholls is a communications consultant and former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition.