During the ongoing provincial election campaign, I'm unlikely to agree very often with Liberal Leader Raj Sherman. But on the subject of third-party advertising, Sherman is one of the few party bosses who gets it.
After the 2008 campaign, the Tory government passed a law making it so difficult for third parties — unions, professional groups, taxpayers' organizations and industry associations — to take out ads, that the new rules amount to a ban on advertising by anyone other than registered parties and registered candidates.
That is downright anti-democratic. There is no more important time than a campaign to hear from anyone and everyone with a point of view. But the Tory bill has the effect of making elections a monopoly for politicians.
Under the law, third parties can still spend enough money to buy ads big enough to attract voters' attention. The catch is that the reporting requirements for who donated and how much, are so onerous that few organizations will have the time and resources to jump through all the hoops.
The Alberta law was a response to ads taken out by a union front-organization called Albertans for Change. During the 2008 campaign, the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Services Association of Alberta, the United Nurses of Alberta and the Alberta Building Trades Council got together to spend an estimated $2 million of members' dues on ads aimed at unseating the Tory government.
Needless to say, the ads didn't have their intended impact. Nonetheless, the Tories didn't want to face such concerted opposition from unions again.
This time around, unions could still spend $2 million appealing to Albertans to end the Tories' 41-year reign, but to do so they would have to first prove the money came from freewill donations given by individual union members (rather than lump sums from the unions' general operating funds) and that each donation was knowingly given for the purposes of buying political ads. On top of that, the name and address of any member giving more than $375 would have to be made public.
These rules apply to all third parties, not just unions, but the likelihood of unions being able to solicit enough extra funds from individual members to repeat 2008's campaign is very remote.
Elections Alberta recently sent stern letters to groups such as the Alberta Medical Association, warning them that if they engage in third-party advertising without registering with the government first and complying with pages of regulations, they run the risk of incurring fines of up to $100,000.
Premier Alison Redford explained that she supported this ban because she doesn't want a situation where citizens' organizations "are driving a policy agenda independently from what political parties are doing."
Really? I would have thought in a democracy that is exactly what we would want — independent organizations speaking up with policy ideas when they don't think the political parties and their candidates are doing an adequate job. It is dangerous, in fact, to leave the policy agenda to the parties and their candidates alone.
There is no better time for third parties to speak up than during election campaigns, when the greatest number of citizens are paying attention. Sherman gets that.
He's in favour of transparency from third parties. They should declare who is sponsoring their ads and make the names of donors public. But he objects to rules that make it all but impossible for Albertans who aren't affiliated with parties to raise issues important to them. "This is a democratic country the last time I checked," he told reporters Sunday, "and there's something called freedom of speech."
Edmonton Sun, Thurs Apr 5 2012
Byline: Lorne Gunter