Bad Timing

In an interesting story yesterday, the Globe and Mail reported that “British Columbia’s largest public-sector union is appealing a fine of more than $3-million levied by Elections BC over a television advertisement that aired during the spring by-elections.” The union started an ad campaign three days before the by-elections were called. As the article tells the story – mostly with the Union’s perspective – the ad had nothing to do with the specific by-elections; it was directed against the provincial government’s policy towards civil servants in general. But since it disfavoured the party in government, opposing its stance on issues with which it is associated, it counted as election advertising. The union eventually cancelled the ad in the ridings in which the by-elections were taking place, but it had run for four days, which, in the view of Elections BC, was enough to violate the very low spending limits for individual ridings.

The union now says that Elections BC misjudged the amount of its spending (and thus of the fine, which is a multiple of the amount by which it broke the spending limit), counting its province-wide expenses for the duration of the ad campaign as expenses on the specific by-elections. That sounds like a reasonable complaint, but the article does not explain the view Elections BC, and I have not been able to find its decision on its website, so I will not express a definitive opinion.

In any event, this story is an illustration of a trend about which I blogged before. It is that restrictions on spending by “third parties” – that is citizens, unions, NGOs and anyone else except political parties and candidates – are, in Canada, working mostly not to the detriment not of the rich, whose influence they were intended to check, but of the not-so-rich who are able to wield considerable resources by organizing. It is mostly unions, as I noted here, but also, in Québec, the student movement. Another important point is that, as I pointed out in this op-ed about the impact of third-party spending restrictions on the Québec student movement, beginning an election campaign – which in most Canadian jurisdictions the first minister can do practically at will – can effectively silence an ongoing social movement or debate. What this case shows is that a general election might not even be necessary. A well-timed and strategically placed by-election can do the trick.

I suppose I will have occasion to blog about this case again, and probably similar ones too. In the meantime, we would do well to think again about whether our election-spending framework is actually a good thing for our democracy.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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