In the leadup to the hastily called 2015 provincial election, the ATA put together a campaign to draw attention to issues affecting public education and asked voters to “vote for candidates who support standing up for our students.”
You may remember the innovative peel-down cards that featured a classic school crossing road sign with two stick figures in it, under the word “Perception.” After peeling down the front, the card then read, “Reality” and showed 17 figures crammed onto the same sign, plus one more student hanging from the edge. The punchline read “18,000 more students are added to Alberta’s schools each year. Make sure your vote supports them all.”
Alberta’s chief electoral officer received a complaint that the advertising violated new rules restricting third party election advertising. He immediately wrote a letter to the ATA saying he was launching an investigation under the subject line, “Cease and Desist Letter for Third Party Advertisers who are not Complying with the Requirements of Section 44.8 of the EFCDA.”
You see, the new rules required parties that undertook “election advertising” to register with the chief electoral officer, to comply with spending limits and to include specific authorization statements on the ads. The act defined election advertising as advertising that is promoting or opposing a party or candidate, but also included “advertising that takes a position on an issue with which a registered party or registered candidate is associated.”
In a superbly worded response letter, ATA lawyers essentially asked what the point of launching an investigation would be when the subject line of the letter seemed to indicate that the chief electoral officer had already reached its conclusion. But moreover, the letter argued that the Association was not promoting or opposing any particular party (we do not do that), nor was it taking a stance on an issue associated with any party.
“All parties to our knowledge have policies that they say provide appropriate support for schools and the public education system generally,” the letter stated.
The ATA’s letter also noted that if the third-party advertising legislation intended to prohibit the type of non-partisan expression made here, then it “would surely infringe on the Association’s right of freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Nine months later, the chief electoral officer responded to the ATA to state that his office was ceasing the investigation because there were insufficient grounds to warrant its continuation.
Years later, both the chief electoral officer and the ATA submitted recommendations to the legislature that the law should be amended to remove restrictions on this type of issues-based advertising. Bill 81, introduced by the UCP government this fall, proposes that amendment for advertising done outside of an election period, but not for advertising done in the five months leading up to election day.
But that is just the beginning of the issues with Bill 81.
The legislation places extremely low restrictions on how much groups can contribute to political advertising. Furthermore, it makes it so that only individuals can contribute to an advertising campaign held during the five-month pre-election period. These changes would effectively eliminate the possibility that the ATA could fund a third-party advertising campaign on behalf of teachers.
It goes on to state that groups “affiliated” with a political party cannot be third-party advertisers, which seems fair until you see how broadly it defines that affiliation. A whole group could be considered affiliated if it has people who serve (even in a voluntary capacity on their own time) in a named position on a party or if it has previously made public statements that align with the views of one party or another.
These changes are clearly aimed at knee-capping the ability of the Alberta Federation of Labour, specifically, and all unions more generally, from speaking out against government policy.
There is no way to view them as any-thing but an undemocratic infringement on the freedoms of association and expression outlined in the Charter.
Unfortunately, successful legal challenges may not even save your freedoms.
Earlier this year, a similar law put forward by Premier Doug Ford in Ontario was struck down by the courts as being unconstitutional. That government responded by reintroducing parts of the law invoking the Charter’s notwithstanding clause, a rarely used power allowing governments to temporarily override rights and freedoms in five-year stints.
Would Premier Jason Kenney do the same thing here to advance this unconstitutional election gag law?
I suppose that depends on whether you think he would stop at nothing to win an election. ❚
I welcome your comments. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.