Opinion Column

Steep fine shows problems in election ad laws

BILL TIELEMAN

As to the evil, which results from a censorship, it is impossible to measure it, for it is impossible to tell where it ends. - Philosopher Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832

Does freedom of speech end when an election starts?

Is it permissible to impose censorship on public debate for the entire province when byelections are held in just two of 85 ridings?

A B.C. Supreme Court justice will answer those questions after Elections BC imposed a shocking $3.2 million fine on the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union for allegedly briefly violating rules severely limiting election advertising.

The union is also banned from running ads in next year's election.

The facts behind Elections BC's decision make no sense at all.

When B.C. Premier Christy Clark called two byelections March 22, BCGEU contacted Elections BC to ask if the television ads already being broadcast to promote a new contract would be seen as "election ads" under legislation that severely restricts advertising during a vote.

Yes they are, Elections BC said by e-mail late Friday, March 23. That e-mail was overlooked until Tuesday. The BCGEU then pulled all advertising.

The ads don't mention any political party. BCGEU members say: "A decade of falling behind from government cuts and wage freezes has hurt us and the services you rely on."

But under B.C.'s ridiculously punitive Election Act, elections ads include any that ".... takes a position on an issue with which a registered political party or candidate is associated."

Spending limits are also extraordinary, just $3,000 per riding and $150,000 across the province in total.

The penalty is a fine 10 times the amount overspent.

Elections BC bizarrely ruled that even though the entire BCGEU ad budget was $280,000, the union overspent the $3,000 limit by $159,000 in each riding.

So take $159,000 times two, multiply it by 10 and presto, you owe $3.2 million!

Absurd!

BCGEU spokesperson Chris Bradshaw said in an interview Sunday the union argues Elections BC erred in calling them "elections ads". The union also believes Elections BC was wrong in calculating the fine and wrong imposing it when BCGEU consulted the agency and withdrew the ads promptly.

One doesn't have to be a union supporter to see anyone could also be silenced if this draconian law and ruling aren't tossed out.