Published here with the express permission of Gerry Nicholls,
Vice-President, National Citizens Coalition

Ms. Stronach signed a petition against the Liberals’ limits on citizens buying ads during elections. Does she stand by her word? demands GERRY NICHOLLS

Back in the days when Belinda Stronach was still a contender in the Conservative Party, she made me a promise I hope she intends to keep.

Ms. Stronach pledged—in writing—to scrap one of the most obnoxious and dangerous pieces of legislation ever to pass through the House of Commons: the Liberal government’s election gag law. Her anti-gag-law stance was praiseworthy and indeed, at the time, I publicly praised her for it.

After all, any type of gag law is dangerous, but none is more dangerous than one that stifles the right to election-time free speech, a right I think everyone would agree is a core democratic freedom. And stifling free election speech is exactly what the Liberal gag law does.

Enacted back in 2000, this law makes it a crime for citizens or non-partisan independent organizations to freely and effectively express political opinions at election time through advertising. And while the gag law doesn’t outright ban this type of political advertising, it does, through severe and unfair spending restrictions, make it virtually impossible for non-political parties to meaningfully participate in any election debate.

The Liberals will argue this law is needed to stop people from “buying elections” but that’s baloney. The reality is that politicians like gag laws because they are a handy way to silence groups or citizens who may wish to criticize government policies. Under the gag law, for instance, a private citizen who took out a full-page ad in The Globe and Mail to denounce the Adscam scandal could possibly be thrown into jail for up to five years.

Similarly, the gag law keeps off the radar screen any advocacy organizations wishing to put such issues as same-sex marriage, the gun registry, health care, child poverty or the environment on the election agenda. The gag law effectively means only politicians can frame the election debate, at least through paid advertising.

My group, the National Citizens Coalition, has long opposed these types of laws because we believe all citizens should have the right to freely participate in the electoral process. Indeed, we battled the Liberal gag law tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada where, despite victories at lower-court levels, we ultimately lost.

In a controversial (some would say incomprehensible) ruling, the Supreme Court judged the gag law to be constitutional. We battled the gag law not only in court; we also sought to convince politicians to kill this horrible law, on the idea that whatever politicians enact, they can also repeal. And so, back in early 2004, we contacted the three contenders for the Conservative Party leadership and asked them to sign a special pledge form that committed them to scrapping the gag law should they become prime minister.

Those contenders were Stephen Harper, Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach, then a Conservative Party star. All three signed our pledge. Clearly, at the time, Ms. Stronach believed gag laws were wrong and undemocratic. Much has changed since she signed the pledge. She’s now a Liberal star.

So how does her new party affiliation affect her pledge to scrap the gag law? Does she still believe gag laws are wrong? Or does she now follow the Liberal Party line?

For her part, Ms. Stronach has always maintained that her crossing the floor last spring didn’t mean she was abandoning her principles. But you never know, so after she switched parties, I wrote her a letter asking her to restate her position on gag laws. I’ve had no reply.

Common courtesy aside, Ms. Stronach has no obligation to answer my letter or to explain herself to me. But now we are in the midst of a federal election, meaning she does have an obligation to let her constituents know where she stands on issues such as free speech during elections. If she still stands beside the pledge she signed last year, she should say so to the voters and further pledge that, if elected, she will do whatever possible to scrap this horrid gag law.

On the other hand, if she now favours election gag laws, she should candidly admit this to voters and explain her flip-flop.

In previous elections, before the gag law came into being, the National Citizens Coalition could have run newspaper and radio ads demanding Ms. Stronach come clean. If we did that during this election, however, we could be committing a crime.