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Election-advertising law is unconstitutional

January 24, 2019
Election-advertising law is unconstitutional

Last summer, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation put up a billboard that read: “You can’t buy ‘social licence’ when it’s not for sale.” Premier Rachel Notley and other politicians have claimed the carbon tax would create the social licence necessary to get pipelines built. Yet, Albertans now pay more to heat their homes and eco-activists are still hanging from bridges to stop oil tankers and blockading pipelines.

But the billboard is about much more than challenging the failed concept of social licence; it’s about challenging an unconstitutional law.

In 2016, the Notley government passed a new gag law that makes it illegal for Albertans to spend more than $1,000 on so-called political advertising without first registering with the government, disclosing how much they are going to spend and how they got the money.

Requiring Albertans to register with the government before they express their opinion on a political issue is the antithesis of what it means to be Canadian. It’s reminiscent of the Chinese government requiring protesters to register prior to demonstrating at the 2008 Olympics. Our governments require the consent of the people, the people do not require the consent of governments.

Moreover, Notley’s gag law is so arbitrary and vague that it could apply to virtually anything. Not only does it cover an ad that promotes or opposes a political party, it also includes: “an advertising message that takes a position on an issue with which a registered party, the leader of a registered party, a member of the legislative assembly, a registered nomination contestant, a registered leadership contestant or a registered candidate is associated.”

When the CTF inquired with Elections Alberta whether it had a list of all the issues that are covered by this law, we were told there is no list.

Consider a hypothetical. Imagine a community group buys a radio ad to advocate for a new addictions-recovery centre. If even a single nomination candidate, for any party, anywhere in the province, had taken a position on that issue, the community group’s radio ads could be illegal.

This law is a clear violation of every Albertan’s Charter right to freedom of expression. That is why it is essential we take this to court and fight the law.

Undoubtedly, some will claim that the law doesn’t stop us from advertising, we just have to register with the government and breach the privacy of thousands of our donors. However, in addition to the obvious increase in bureaucracy and red tape, the donation-disclosure rules are an attempt to scare off Albertans. Protecting that privacy is the same principle behind a secret ballot when voting — it’s nobody’s business which party you vote for or which advocacy group you donate your own money to.

Many CTF donors are proud to display their financial support for the work we do. If you go to Taxpayer.com, throughout the year you can see thousands of names, donation amounts and messages from donors who proudly choose to make a public stand.

Others choose not to, for a variety of reasons. Some fear repercussions from government officials or other angry targets of the CTF’s campaigns. Some CTF donors work for the government and fear disclosure of their donations might cost them their jobs or a promotion. Some CTF supporters sell their products to the government and fear disclosure of their donation might lose them a contract.

And that’s why we are going to court. We understood putting up our billboard could result in a fine from Elections Alberta. Indeed, our billboard was erected only a block away from the Elections Alberta office.

But we could never allow an unconstitutional law to intimidate us into silence. And, when we put up our billboard, we were determined to defend our right to free speech in court if necessary.

We’ve been fined $6,000 — the largest fine to date.

But it’s not about the money. Our lawyers’ bills will dwarf the fine. Whether you agree that Alberta’s carbon tax is an expensive and unnecessary tax or not, vital political discourse requires more Albertans willing to speak up and speak out, not fewer. We are taking this to court because we believe this gag law is unconstitutional and a violation of every Albertans’ right to freedom of expression.

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