Alberta election law muzzles advocacy campaign website that calls for corporate tax increases

Better Way Alberta campaign site will be shuttered to comply with law that ‘undermines free speech’

Edmonton (09 April 2015) — It is day three of the election campaign in Alberta. Premier Jim Prentice announced on April 7 that voters will be going to the polls on May 5. And the first casualty of the campaign is the Alberta Federation of Labour's (AFL) Better Way Alberta campaign. A decision by the provincial Chief Electoral Officer, Glen Resler, has forced the campaign website to be shut down. The website has been informing the public about issues that are important to Albertans — public services and provincial revenue — and urges them to think about these issues before they vote.

Alberta Chief Electoral Officer deems Alberta Federation of Labour's Better Way Alberta website is a third-party ad

“Basically, they’ve ruled that the videos that act as the cornerstone of the BWA website need to be deemed as third-party advertisements,” AFL president Gil McGowan said.

“But, it’s absurd to put websites in the same category as paid TV, radio or social media advertisements. They’re passive; they’re only viewed by people who want to view them. It’s like telling people what they can and cannot read,” McGowan said. “Imagine if the government went into a library and started pulling books off the shelf that they said shouldn’t be read during an election campaign. People would be outraged. But that’s exactly what they’re doing in this case.”

The Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act (EFCDA), which regulates third-party spending during elections, imposes heavy fines on groups that disobey the act’s overly complicated and onerous rules.

AFL complying with the decision but considering a free speech Charter challenge

The Alberta Federation of Labour, which is not allowed to register as a third-party advertiser under the rules, is complying with the legislation. The Federation will, however, consider legal recourses such as launching a Charter challenge against the Elections Act on the grounds that it violates the right to free speech guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“We are not necessarily opposed to restrictions on third-party advertising during elections. The government’s goal when they introduced the current Elections Finance Act was to stop organizations with deep pockets from flooding the airwaves during campaigns — and we support that goal,” McGowan said. “However, they’ve gone too far when they start telling advocacy groups that they have to shut down their websites.”

Despite the broad definition of what constitutes 3rd party ads, only the AFL website is being shut down

The EFCDA says that any piece of text, audio or video that has been paid for by anyone other than a political party and that is designed to persuade the public on issues related to government policy will be deemed political advertisement for the purposes of the Act. That means that many documents produced by organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business could be seen as campaign advertisements.

“Yet, it’s only the Better Way Alberta campaign — which calls for increased taxes on corporate profits instead of cuts to public services — that is being shut down. That’s a double standard,” McGowan said. “And it leads me to believe that this law isn’t really about protecting the public interest and the sanctity of elections; it’s about muzzling individuals and groups who disagree with the government.”

Launched in early March, the Better Way Alberta website has been visited by almost 50,000 Albertans. The campaign’s YouTube videos have been viewed in excess of 370,000 times. The petition, which asks the government to reform the province’s revenue system through progressive taxes, corporate taxes and fair royalty rates, has been signed by 6,500 people.  The BWA campaign leaflet was mailed to more than 1.2 million Alberta homes.

“Clearly our message has struck a chord with Albertans,” McGowan said. 

The Federation of Labour is sending a letter asking for the Premier to intervene and to provide an assurance that he will not prosecute the AFL or any other advocacy group for content posted on their websites. 


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