Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Preston Manning's red herring

In the Globe and Mail today, Preston Manning regales us with a tale of alleged political machinations by the governing NDP in the province of Manitoba. The Gary Doer government has introduced Bill 37, which seeks to amend current provincial election laws. According to Manning, the Bill proposes "restricting freedom of speech on political grounds," "restricting democratic discourse, even "[striking] at the very exercise of democracy itself."

OK, Preston, we get the picture. Let's see what all the fuss is about.

A reading of the Bill (which combines five separate Acts) indicates that the government wants fixed election dates, the registration of lobbyists, annual allowances for political parties, and increased spending limits for political parties outside and during election periods, with inflation adjustments as well. So far, no threat to Western civilization.

What appear to be the bones of contention, however, are to be found in Schedule 3 of the Bill, the Election Finances Amendment Act, and Schedule 5, the Legislative Assembly Management Commission Amendment Act.

Schedule 3 will restrict political advertising by any party to $150,000 in an election year and $75,000 in a non-election year. One might quibble about the amounts, but the law applies equally to all parties. What galls Manning is that the incumbent NDP government will be permitted to continue (with the exception of a 60-day pre-election period of silence) to advertise its services to the public.

But no government of any stripe should be prevented from informing the public, in a non-partisan manner, of the programs and activities of government departments. There is a difference between political contestation and day-to-day governance, even if the Stephen Harper government has shown itself to be unaware of it (as in its ham-handed enforcement of the term "Canada's New Government"). Manning is seasoned enough to be fully aware of this distinction, but here he is obfuscating the difference in a crassly political manner.

Schedule 5 introduces measures requiring that public monies allocated to MLAs for communications are not used for partisan purposes. It proposes drafting guidelines for all parties to that effect. Manning decries this as "censorship," but it's in fact a typical requirement in Canadian legislatures. Here, for example, is the regulation currently in place in Alberta:

Communication Expenses

This allowance may be used to pay expenses related to nonpartisan [emphasis mine --DD] communication between Members and their constituents, including but not limited to

• printing and postage for mass mailings of letters,
pamphlets, brochures, Christmas cards and other
greetings to constituents;
• postage for mailings to constituents;
• advertisements;
• purchase of cellular telephones; and
• reasonable expenses for registration, materials and
tuition fees related to learning another language.

The question I am now asking myself is whether Manning is deliberately attempting to divert attention from the genuinely offensive political suppression presently being threatened in BC by his political co-religionist Gordon Campbell.

Campbell is supporting the effective disenfranchisement of 5% of the BC electorate (h/t The Gazetteer); and he wants to gag third parties (read: unions and progressive advocacy groups) for five months before election day. The proposed legislation is undoubtedly unconstitutional, but it's well-timed: a final court ruling on it wouldn't happen until well after the next BC election.

There's a good review of Campbell's "reforms" at The Tyee. Readers should note that Duff Connacher, of Democracy Watch, disagrees that the proposed third-party spending limits constitute a "gag." Indeed, progressives have supported such limits for a long time, to level the political playing field, and the first such limits in BC (since found unconstitutional) were legislated in 1995 by the NDP. But with all due respect to Connacher, the proposed legislation isn't merely a restriction on partisan advertising, but even extends to
"an issue with which a registered political party or candidate is associated." So much for non-partisan but forceful advocacy with respect to the environment, women, labour, immigration, the economy, occupational health and safety, consumer protection, etc.--what issue isn't associated with some political party or other?

Moreover, this wretched assault on democracy imposes no limits on political contributions to parties. So the wealthy corporate backers of Campbell will just advertise less and contribute more to the same cause. Progressive advocacy, in other words, will be stifled; corporate advocacy will merely be diverted.

We haven't heard a peep out of Preston Manning on any of this, of course. Rather, we get in effect
a disingenuous tu quoque, as he wrings his hands about an alleged threat to democracy in Manitoba. Like Campbell's legislation, his well-timed intervention doesn't pass the smell test. But it was a shrewd move by a veteran political operator: there's life in those old bones yet.

UPDATE: (May 28) Duff Connacher responds at length in the comments. He is of the opinion that I misrepresented his position: readers will have to judge for themselves if I did so, but he provides, in any case, considerable detail with respect to his position on Bill 37.

Connacher notes that his own view of imposing spending limits but not contribution limits is similar to mine in the second-last paragraph of my post (we're opposed), and believes that I should have pointed that out. On reflection, he's probably right, in part because the paragraph in question could, as I see now, be read as a further rejoinder to Connacher (which it wasn't) rather than a continuation of my own objections to Bill 37. My statements about his position, in any case, were not an attack upon him, as he appears to think, but merely a disagreement over third-party advertising. I'm a great fan of his Democracy Watch. More in the comments.

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