In BC, democracy has a price tag. Sometimes.
They failed the first time, but that hasn't deterred the BC government from trying yet again to put a sock in the mouths of community organizations, chambers of commerce, unions and other groups by attempting to impose tough spending restrictions on third parties which – if they get their way – would apply before an election is even officially underway.
The BC Court of Appeal will soon hear arguments in the Constitutional reference by the BC government over third party spending limits during what the government likes to call a “pre-campaign” period. Last time round the Court said such limits violated the Charter of Rights.
This time, the BC government chose to cut the pre-campaign period from 60 days prior to an election campaign to 40 days hoping to comply with the Charter, even though they would have been far better off shelving this ill-conceived idea altogether.
When the government first legislated it in 2001, BC was the only province to have a fixed election date. Today, eight provinces have fixed elections. Yet, BC stands alone in the belief that a pre-campaign period is somehow necessary to protect an election's sanctity.
But the government's rewrite of the law also affords British Columbians an opportunity to take a peek at the various ways the government tries to stack the deck when it comes to citizen engagement during elections.
First: if it doesn't suit the government's agenda, who needs rules? Who cares how much third parties spend as long as the government's allies are likely to outspend their opponents?
Such was the case in last summer's HST referendum when there was no “pre-campaign” period, and the government did away with campaign spending limits or disclosure requirements regarding the identity of donors and the amount of their donations.
Everyone was free to spend with wild abandon. And some did.
British Columbians will likely never know how much the Smart Tax Alliance and its members spent in their valiant but ultimately in vain campaign to try and save their corporate windfall from the HST, because the government hastily rewrote the law in advance of the vote.
So it would seem – at least for the Clark government – that the real threat to BC's democracy isn't the good folk at the Smart Tax Alliance, it's those troublesome unions, churches, environmental groups and the like that seemingly put BC's very system of government at risk.
So what to do if you're a government intent on trying to muffle the masses?
First, set a strict spending limit. Under BC's Elections Act, third party election spending is limited to $3,000 per electoral district and $150,000 overall.
Secondly, dissipate that spending even further by creating a “pre-campaign” period to force third parties to stretch their meagre limit even further.
Third, make them register with Elections BC, file an advertising disclosure report if they spend over $500, and require them to disclose the amount of contributions they received starting six months before the election is called.
He who writes the rules (often) wins the game
And if that doesn't scare off those pesky do-gooders, then write rules that are so convoluted that most groups will likely wave a white flag before even trying to decipher what they mean.