“Surely you’re not saying that anyone should be able to use their fortune to buy so much advertising that they can force us to do what they want?”, said an interlocutor earlier this week, when I suggested that the public sector unions in BC were absolutely right to be fighting the Campbell Government’s gag laws on public expression in the half year leading up to the next provincial election.
Yes, I am. In fact, I’m insisting on it.
In this, of course, I find myself championing the same sort of freedom of expression once championed — no longer, apparently — by our Prime Minister in his days at the National Citizens’ Coalition. A free people need the ability to communicate their views to others. In this era of the Internet, where anyone can open a blog or build a web page and attempt to get people to view it by using Adwords or some other matching program, what election “communication restriction” regulations and laws do is essentially say “your stated and historic rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly (it is often illegal to even advertise a meeting on a political issue near an election), or freedom of the press (if I’m paying for the publication, such as in blogging, I “own” a press) aren’t worth the paper we wrote them on.”
Canadians may not have had a revolution and subsequent period of Constitution-writing to enshrine the principle that Government is the servant of the People and not the other way around as did the Americans, but from Magna Carta onward that is the thrust and summation of our own history. By calling, in the 1840s, for responsible government, Baldwin and LaFontaine set Canada on a course where we people would determine the form and content of our government, not accept what was given by “our betters”, the Crown or the Family Compact. By passing the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker encoded this into Canadian law. Section 2 of the Charter further encoded these rights, by making them Constitutional Law rather than Statute Law.
Our bureaucratic masters and political betters — as they most assuredly do think of themselves (the 2006 election’s outburst by Scott Read, the infamous “beer and popcorn” dismissal of the individual Canadian’s ability to make a decision on their own, was bad politics, and no accident: it reflects perfectly this type of thinking) — of course point to Section 1 of the Charter and say “these are reasonable limits”. But are they?
Who is protected by limiting my ability to speak out on issues in the lead-up to an election? Fundamentally, it’s not even the politicians themselves who are protected: it is their parties and the campaigns they run. This is hardly in the class of a “reasonable limit” — unless you live in the courtier society where senior bureaucrats and senior party figures intermingle, and where campaign tactics are worked out. There, anything that disturbs the planned schedule of sound bites, photo ops and “messaging moments” and the smooth working of the spin machine needs to be pushed aside. Imagine, having to actually have an unplanned, unscheduled “reaction” to events! (As for the bureaucrats, the sine qua non of civil service life, born out of the mantra “never have the Minister have to answer a question about us in the House”, is that no information should be shared, no thinking aloud is tolerated, and nothing that hasn’t come through the policy development process, i.e. through approved channels or via a co-operative quango or think tank, should ever enter the public’s consciousness.)
Sorry. In the wonderful words given to the fictional and immoral British politician, Sir Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs’ series House of Cards—To Play the King—The Final Cut, “you might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”. Your gag laws, of course, are designed to make that so: by force, you overblown champions of self-importance and confusers of personal, party and national interest will ensure that the second part of that statement is made true.
But it isn’t so: the onus is on those who would restrict our freedom of speech, of publication, of assembly to demonstrate the reasonableness of their limits prior to implementation, not by imposing the regulations and forcing us to — “when allowed” — fight them at our own expense (You worry about the monied buying up advertising? Have you priced the cost — in money, time and emotional toil, not to mention “collateral damage” to business interests and personal reputation — of spending years fighting the near-infinite resources of “the Government”? Few of us can afford it, no matter how many hours of pro bono legal help we receive!). Or, of course, defy them and engage in a Gandhi-like struggle with civil authority through deliberate civil disobedience.
I’ve no particular message I want to champion throughout the upcoming BC election period, or during the next Federal election period. But I am a blogger. However many or few readers my written thoughts might reach, entertain and influence, what both the regulations of Elections Canada and the new gag regulations in British Columbia say is that, for the relevant period, I must censor myself. I must avoid topics I might want to write about, that are “my right” on one day and “illegal” on the next.
(No doubt the next response to that little anomaly will be to further restrict what can be discussed all the time. There is already a chill that has settled in around aspects of public security — how many of us who fly from time to time on business are willing to risk arguing that the practices of CATSA or the US TSA are ineffective, idiotic, often at odds with our fundamental rights, etc. knowing that the “No Fly” list is arbitrarily established and changed and that the functionary who puts you on it, or who forbids you to travel, need not justify their decision. That is but one example of how restrictions multiply — and rapidly — to the point where people yield their rights and become the Servant to the Master.)
What’s interesting about this whole “gag” situation is that it will be absolutely all right to comment on events — “at yesterday’s bus tour stop in front of the closed plant in Ontario, So-and-So gave a speech that was completely off topic” will be acceptable comment — but not to discuss the issue brought up in that speech if it strays beyond reporting. Analysis, for instance, of a taxation proposal could veer over a line (set only after publication by a faceless bureaucrat, no doubt acting on a complaint from a party campaign official) and be deemed to be in the banned zone, being (in their bureaucratic estimation) “the equivalent of campaign advertising without being associated with a duly authorised campaign”. The expression “gag me with a spoon” is, alas, far too close to the truth here to be comfortable; the thinking, of course, is vintage 20th century Fascist or Marxist at the core (the two ends of the spectrum do nicely wrap together, differing only on details of how the people are to be disposed of for the benefit of the rulers of the state, but agreeing entirely on basic principles).
So, too, a philosophical examination of the purpose of government, the restrictions that should be placed on lawmakers, etc., could all be seen — easily, too: witness the legal battles of the aforementioned National Citizens’ Coalition — as “equivalent to campaigning”. These are all things I have published on here and on previous blogs I have had that are legal today, and illegal tomorrow, for no reason other than political comfort. Of course, actually writing — during the “blackout” period — something along the line of one of my prior pieces on why it may be more appropriate to spoil your ballot, or to formally abstain from voting, is already banned.
Notice, too, that in British Columbia it is the public sector unions who stand essentially alone in this fight. Politically, a fair distance along the spectrum of options from the National Citizens’ Coalition in its national fights on the subject, but in both cases organizations that feel silenced by these regulations to gag them. Note, too, that the one everyone fears — “big business” — is absolutely silent. Why not? Their access already exists. A wag once defined a “business politician” as “one who stays bought”. You don’t need to spend a cent on advertising your position if you’ve already sold your case — and your opponents are barred from speaking out against it. This, at the end of the day, is further evidence in favour of the notion that election gag laws are not about money at all, but about silencing those who would upset totally-planned campaigns.
After the US Constitutional Convention closed in 1787, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said that the attendees had given Americans “a Republic, if you can keep it”. Peace, order and good government — our Canadian framing statement — likewise requires us to keep it: governments that gag us are not giving us good government. It’s up to us to keep it.
Bring down the gag laws. Refuse to be silent in the face of them. Refuse to bend your neck to those who would be your master. They serve you, not the other way around.
We are only the True North Strong and Free until we fail to Stand on Guard to make it so.