Stories of eroding democracy loom large in the global press these days; the alleged culprits are usually flamboyant strongmen with open authoritarian objectives. But democracy can just as easily be weakened in progressive nations by its own purported saviors, through quiet, bureaucratic means.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government recently passed more than 200 pages of dramatic changes to the way Canadian elections work. Among other things, the new rules will further restrain the degree that Canadians can exercise their constitutional rights to free political speech and activism. Such regulations were passed with the standard progressive smugness that heavily regulating political speech and activity in the name of fairness and equality is unambiguously virtuous. Righteous self-confidence, however, does not negate the practical consequences of this fundamentally illiberal exercise of state power.
Trudeau’s final bill represents no improvement from the draconian first draft introduced in April. According to the Democratic Institutions ministry, the new legislation seeks to ensure that “political actors” operate on a “fair and level playing field,” and will impose “reasonable limits” on their budgets. Translated to English, this means government has devised new ways to punish politically motivated groups of Canadians, be they environmentalists, social conservatives, business or labor leaders, minority rights’ activists or anything in between, who engage in activities such as advertising or “canvassing door-to-door, making telephone calls to electors and organizing rallies” without first conforming to Ottawa’s rules.
Canada’s formal “election period” is now capped at 50 days before election day, with the two months or so before comprising a novel “pre-election” period as well. During “pre-election” time — a concept that has no democratic rationale beyond government’s expansive appetite to control political activity — so-called third parties are treated with as much suspicion as during the tightly regulated elections themselves. Groups and individuals may not spend more than $700,000 on “partisan activities” and “partisan advertising” during this period, and must immediately register with the government after spending their first $500. Ottawa expects a full itemized list of all revenue and expenses incurred, including the date and place of every attempt to change a mind.
Thanks to these amendments and others, the Canada Elections Act is now impossibly long and frighteningly intimidating. Any Canadian who plans to exert any significant expense or effort in persuading his or her fellow citizens to vote one way or another in next year’s election should immediately retain a team of lawyers and accountants, as there is simply no other way to navigate the dense brush of legal weeds that now govern election-adjacent democratic participation in Canada. Rule-breakers can expect thousands of dollars in fines or even prison time.
Things will almost certainly get worse. The paradoxical dream of a perfectly controlled democracy that inspired Trudeau’s Elections Modernization Act (and the many terrible prior election laws it builds upon) is a fundamentally authoritarian project forever finding fresh justification to further constrain citizens’ rights.
Given that earlier moral panic has already restrained candidate and party fundraising to the bare minimum, expect the 2019 election to trigger a fresh wave of government paranoia over all the corporate/union/industry/etc. money being “funneled” into third parties. Some future administration will then surely impose even tighter restraints on third-party spending and activity. Perhaps they’ll follow the lead of Ontario, where “pre-election” regulations now govern a preposterous six months before voting day. Either way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the long-term goal is the removal of “third parties” from Canada’s political conversation altogether.
At an increasingly fast clip, Canada is consolidating its status as a nation in which it is extremely difficult for average Canadians, acting either as individuals or through advocacy groups, to legally communicate ideas or stage events in or around elections. Though Trudeau is the latest perpetrator, the issue is not partisan. Parties on all sides demagogue equally about the scourge of inappropriately engaged Canadians spending too much of their own time and money on issues important to them.
Without any firmer foundation than speculative, self-interested theories about what hurts their ability to get elected, Canada’s political class has a vested interest in minimizing the political activism of others. Lawmakers, after all, are allowed to endlessly speechify and self-promote in their capacity as pieces of the government, and they jealously guard that perk. “Third parties” must therefore be portrayed as illegitimate competitors in the way unions and corporations already have. Aspersions must be cast on these outsiders, with their exercise of democratic rights portrayed as dangerous and subversive. The politician’s goal is to monopolize all conversation about policies and priorities, thereby making his or her own leadership seem indispensable.
The other beneficiary of all this is the media. Canadian election law does not consider journalists as third parties, even though they’re employees of large corporations who spend a great deal of money influencing what voters think about politics. Perhaps this is because Ottawa has a different plan for them. The Trudeau government recently unveiled $595 million in fresh funding to subsidize Canadian news outlets, and a corresponding government committee to identify instances of journalism worthy of subsidization.
These are the trend lines of Canadian democracy at present. A consolidation of influence for those who already have it, while ever-higher bureaucratic barriers are erected to curb the impact of everyone else. Healthy self-governance cannot be sustained with regressive priorities such as these.