Free Political Speech at Risk

You’d think a person who held the federal cabinet position of “Democratic Institutions Minister”, would actually care about protecting democratic rights and freedoms.

I mean, protecting democracy should be a part of the job description, right?

But alas, the Liberal government’s Democratic Institutions Minister, Maryam Monsef, doesn’t seem to be all that interested in protecting freedoms.

In fact, Monsef has strongly hinted that she’s prepared to mutilate, restrict and otherwise mangle the most important of all democratic rights – the right to free political speech.

Mind you, she doesn’t come out and say that directly.

Instead Monsef recently released a statement in which she expressed dismay at how more than 100 different organizations (mainly unions) spent a grand total of $6 million on political advertising during last year’s federal election.

What apparently horrified Monsef was that these groups were (horrors of horrors) using money to buy ads so they could influence the way Canadians voted.

So vowing to reduce the impact of money on federal politics, she wrote “We will ensure that spending rules — both during and between elections — are in keeping with our democratic commitment to make voters, not dollars, determine the outcome of elections.”

Translation: the Liberals will soon pass legislation to further restrict free speech.

I say “further restrict” because Canada already has in place a draconian “gag law” which basically makes it impossible for independent organizations or citizens (politicians like to call them “Third Parties,”) from effectively using paid ads to express political opinions during elections.

Consider, for instance, the 2015 election which saw “Third Parties” spend almost five times more than they did in the 2011 election.

This increase in spending is actually what panicked Monsef.

And sure five times more spending sounds like a lot, until you realize that the “big third party spender” in the last election, the independent group which spent the most money on political ads, was the United Steelworkers union and it spent a mere $431,640.

As anyone who has ever run a national media campaign can tell you, that kind of money will buy you only the scantest of media exposure, not even a ripple on the ocean of public consciousness.

Of course, that’s the whole idea behind election gag laws.

Politicians put them in place not because they want to stop dollars from buying votes, but because they want a monopoly on debate during elections.

To be blunt, they want all independent organizations to stand on the sidelines and shut up.

And now, the Liberal government is musing about imposing a tighter gag.

Does this mean it will soon be illegal for groups to spend even a nickel on advertising?

Even worse, however, is it also seems the Liberals are considering expanding the gag law so that it’s in place between elections.

Think about that.

Do we really want to live in a society where it’s a crime for environmental groups or labor unions or taxpayer advocacy organizations to express political opinions through ads, even if there’s no election to influence?

To me that sounds like government censorship.

And all this illustrates the problem that always emerges when governments start to infringe on democratic freedoms, namely you start sliding down a slippery slope that leads to scary places.

And yes, everyone should be scared by the Liberal government’s musings about limiting free speech.

Advocates on the left should be frightened, advocates on the right should be frightened, anyone who cares about democratic freedoms should be frightened.

After all, if you undermine free expression, you also undermine democracy.

It’s sad how a Democratic Institutions Minister doesn’t seem to get that.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

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