Fractured and demoralized in the age of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian right increasingly rationalizes its low standing with grouchy allegations of a rigged system in which progressives have all the cash and organizational muscle. Rare is the Canadian conservative these days whose grand theory of Why We Can’t Win Elections does not center on the well-heeled partisan activism of unions and environmentalist groups — particularly those who receive “foreign funding” — a conclusion that seamlessly transitions to cries for the paternal hand of government to correct this injustice.
Canada’s left, meanwhile, has always viewed the regulation of political activity as a good unto itself. Spending too much money on politics is deemed self-evidently dangerous and empowering of the right, as is a climate of political expression without government-provided guardrails — such as the country’s sweeping “hate propaganda” laws. Vague anti-American allusions to the dark consequences of unregulated political activity we Canadians supposedly “see” in the United States loom similarly large.
Together, these twin partisan anxieties have honed in on the problem of the so-called permanent campaign, a illiberal slur that describes nothing more than the freedom that Canadians enjoy to engage in and finance political activism year-round without state restriction or regulation. It is this phantom menace that the Trudeau government now seeks to choke with the Elections Modernization Act, a mammoth piece of legislation embodying the worst consensus wisdom of both right and left.
Proving that Canada is incapable of moving forward without several steps back, the panic over a “permanent campaign” appears to have been triggered by the country’s introduction of set election dates in the early 2000s. Once the scheduling of an election became fixed by law, as opposed to the discretion of the prime minister, it became easier to rationalize the idea that there was only one proper time for political activity — the legally defined “campaign period” in the few weeks leading up to voting day — which in turn made all activity not in that narrow window suspect.
Since during the campaign period people or groups that engage in “election advertising” (expansively defined under present law as transmitting to the public “by any means” messages that endorse or oppose parties or candidates) are subject to spending limits and a bevy of other rules, those engaging in such behavior before the campaign period can be accused of exploiting a “loophole.” After all, if one engages in a burst of political “advertising” in the weeks just before legal campaign season begins, isn’t he or she making mockery of the law’s intended discipline?
Trudeau’s bill thus introduces the novel concept of a “pre-election period,” a new three-month window before a scheduled election in which Canadians will face restrictions on their political activity roughly equivalent to what they already endure on election day. The restrictions are not absolute — as is the case with current campaign law, there are carve-outs for journalistic-style commentary and private communication — but they still place numerous burdens on those whose ambition to effect meaningful political change includes public conduct or speech that “promotes or opposes” specific political parties or politicians.
Spending more than $500 (about $400 in U.S. currency) on “partisan advertising” or “partisan activities” (which includes “canvassing door-to-door, making telephone calls to electors and organizing rallies”) during the pre-election period requires registering with Ottawa and submitting documentary reports, as well as appointing a registered financial agent, an auditor and surely at least one lawyer to ensure compliance with the Elections Modernization Act’s dozens of pages of dense legalese. Along with imposing a hard budget cap of about $700,000 (about $550,000 in U.S. figures) to limit total activity, the intent is obviously to discourage politics by making it such an elaborate chore to do legally.
The new law would help censor established NGOs, unions and other activist groups as intended, but given their resources and experience in complying with existing federal regulations, they would not be its worst victims. Of far greater consequence will be the discouragement and intimidation of those upstart actors and activists whose political organization is more amateurish and whose causes, accordingly, are most likely to be disruptive or challenging to Ottawa.
The world is having a half-considered worry about democracy right now that suffers from a lack of consistently enforced standards. When regressive, illiberal reforms are made to laws or governance institutions in parts of the planet that the Western world is used to looking askance at, such as Africa or Eastern Europe, the outrage is palatable. When similar reforms occur in countries we regard as morally righteous, however, the response is a collective shrug, since the assumption holds that these governments’ motives must surely be as pure as stated, with rhetoric that deserves to be taken at face value.
On the basis of no discernible proof beyond their ideological and partisan goals, Canada’s political leaders have concluded that it should be harder for Canadian political actors to exercise their constitutional right to share opinions about politicians. This is disturbing and wrong in any geographic context.