New campaign ad rules excessively strict

Like the little critters in the Stampede midway's Whack a Mole, signs of a fall election are suddenly popping up all over Alberta's political landscape.

First came the announcement by Elections Alberta of a voter enumeration to be held in August and September.

The arm's-length election body is already training enumerators and will be ready for a vote by Nov. 1.

The second sign is the government's sudden proclamation of amendments to control third-party advertising during election campaigns.

With these rules, the government effectively kills any repetition of the anti-government ads that stunned the Tories during the 2008 election campaign.

A group of unions, calling themselves Albertans for Change, spent about $2 million on ads that attacked Premier Ed Stelmach as a man without a plan.

Stelmach was furious.

The PCs responded with their own "Prosperity" ads (so inept, by the way, that even some Tories called them "self-attack" ads).

"We're not going to sit and take it," Stelmach's chief of staff, Ron Glen, said of the union offensive.

"We feel negative attack ads are detrimental to the democratic process."

In the end, the union ads didn't hurt the Tories, and might even have helped them. The government won 72 of 83 seats.

But the victory inspired no generosity whatever.

for ads The PCs raised their legislative hammer with a new bill, and now bring it into effect just in time to prevent such ads on any similar scale for the coming election.

The complex new rules do not exactly set limits on spending by "third parties" such as unions or corporations.

But they limit donors -whether individuals or organizations -to contributing $15,000 per year, or $30,000 in an election year, while circling every donation and third-party group with a maze of conditions.

Some regulation is probably vital to immunize us from a slide into the ugly spectacle of U.S.-style attack ads by interest groups.

But this is over-regulation so confining that it's hard to imagine any group ever again raising significant money for ads.

"It's clearly meant to tie us in knots so we can't do this again," says Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, a prime mover behind the 2008 TV campaign.

"I have absolutely no problem with the section of the bill that requires reporting and transparency from third-party advertising campaigns.

"But these rules are clearly designed to stifle criticism of the government."

One criticism in 2008 was that the unions were spending money the opposition parties, especially the New Democrats, were unable to raise.

McGowan acknowledges this without apology.

"Opposition parties in Alberta have never been able to raise anything close to what the Tories can raise.

". . . The real reason we ran the ads is that the Tories for years have had the capacity to simply swamp the airwaves. We didn't think that was either healthy or fair. You can debate the merits of our ads, but one thing was clear -it was the first time the Tories have ever faced an advertising campaign that came anywhere close to their own."

It was indeed the first time. Also the last.

Calgary Herald, Fri Jul 15 2011
Byline: Don Braid

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