Some years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a federal election gag law that undermines the Charter freedoms of expression and association, and the right to spend one’s own money on the cause of one’s choice.
The Court ruled that our Charter-protected fundamental freedoms must give way to “electoral fairness,” which is not mentioned anywhere in the Charter itself.
Making the situation even worse, Alberta has passed a gag law that applies not only at election time, but at all times. Non-profit advocacy groups must register with the government if they wish to spend more than $1,000 on advertising, and must publicly disclose the names of citizens who donate more than $250 towards advertising.
The first victims of this new law are the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and The Rebel media, each fined for spending money to express an opinion on a billboard, without having registered or disclosed donor names.
Those who dislike either or both of these two groups will be tempted to celebrate the fines. But any celebration is very short-sighted, as this law applies to all groups: left, right, centre and otherwise.
The Alberta Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act (EFCDA) goes so far as to trample on the privacy of citizens wanting to donate for advertising on any “issue” that is “associated” with any party or candidate, at any time, permanently. Practically speaking, that covers education, health care, human rights, taxes, labour laws, social services, and a long list of other important topics on which political parties take a stance.
One of the great things about a free country is that all citizens have an opportunity to fight for justice through advocacy for better laws and policies. In a democracy, citizens are not only free to criticize politicians, but also free to advocate openly and publicly for justice, however one may conceive of it.
For some, justice might mean tougher penalties imposed on those who abuse animals, or on those who drive while impaired, or on those who misuse firearms. Perhaps justice means Canada doing more – or doing less – to develop our oil and gas exports. Perhaps justice entails Canada pursuing different policies on Israel, aboriginal people, abortion or the environment.
The benefits of free expression are not limited to providing every individual with the right to advocate for justice. Free expression facilitates competition among diverse ideas, which creates the healthy debate that a democracy needs to thrive.
When everyone thinks alike, nobody thinks very much. Truth is more likely to emerge from the clash of ideas than from a herd of conformist thinkers who reject challenges to their orthodoxy. Free expression allows for tough questions and vigorous criticism, which in turn tend to destroy bad ideas.
In a free country, citizens also enjoy the ability to join with each other to fight for a just cause. One citizen can do little to change a bad law, but 10,000 citizens working towards a common cause are a force to be reckoned with.
Dictators know that individuals are more powerful and more effective when united together in a group, so they restrict freedom of association, to isolate citizens from each other. Dictators demand that citizens register their groups, and seek the government’s permission to start trade union, a church, a new political party, or other groups.
Citizens of a free country are able to donate their money and volunteer time to worthy causes. Citizens can do so anonymously, or with great fanfare. The secret ballot protects citizens from coercion and intimidation, and in similar fashion, privacy protects people who want their donation to a cause to remain confidential. The government of a free country respects people’s privacy.
No doubt, those who passed the EFCDA were motivated by notions of fairness and transparency when they directly attacked the citizen’s right to be free from intimidation when donating to an unpopular or controversial cause.
An attack on the secret ballot could also be justified on grounds of fairness and transparency. Governments never attack fundamental freedoms without conjuring a nice-sounding reason. But if we lose our freedoms of expression and association, and our right to privacy about which causes we donate to, we lose our democracy.
Lawyer John Carpay is the president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF.ca).