Earlier this month, the Ford Government invoked the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to pass legislation limiting third-party advertising leading up to and during a provincial election in Ontario. All hell broke loose when that happened, especially from special interest groups and media outlets that supported them.
One of the several emails I received about this was from a friend, whose views and mine on most public policy issues and on all things political could not be further apart, but a friend nevertheless.
“Hello Hugh,” this person wrote, “given your concern and warning about the Liberal federal bill that could limit free speech (Bill C-10), I hope you will share in the outrage to protesting this provincial legislation which overturns the Supreme Court ruling. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
There was not an explicit statement there that it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise, but I got the message.
No doubt it will disappoint but not surprise my friend that in this individual instance, I fully support the use of the notwithstanding clause. It is enshrined in the Canadian Constitution for a reason and this particular issue is one of them.
I support it for the same reason that I oppose the federal Bill C-10 which limits the rights of individuals to express themselves on the internet, within the law, without censorship. I support it because I strongly believe that elections should be decided by individuals at the ballot box and not through the undue influence of big money from either the left or the right of the political spectrum.
When speaking in the Ontario Legislature about invoking the notwithstanding clause, Attorney General Doug Downey said this: “We have consistently stated in this House that individual voters should be the ones determining the outcome of Ontario elections, not American-style political action committees or unaccountable pop-ups… [This] Act would restore responsible guardrails to ensure wealthy elites, special interest groups, and corporations won’t drown out the voice of individuals.”
Lest you think this is just some Conservative drivel solely designed to help them win the next election, listen to what former Liberal Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said in 2017 when the Kathleen Wynne government attempted to bring in similar legislation to control third-party spending during an election cycle.
Naqvi said that we need a system “that ensures that the people are being represented first and foremost in a democracy and in our democratic institutions, not just well-funded special interests.” Kathleen Wynne’s Attorney General also said, “…disproportionate financial resources among some of these interests have the potential to distort the conversation, potentially allowing some opinions to be heard louder and more frequently than others.”
So, if we want to talk hypocrisy, how about Liberal leader Steven Del Duca’s statement that Ford’s move to impose spending limits on third-party advertisers was “a sad day for our democracy” when his own party attempted to introduce much the same legislation, the only major difference being the timeline restricting special interest groups’ spending limit of $600,000 which was extended in the Conservative legislation from six months to one year?
The problem faced by the Ford government was that the court’s decision related to the constitutionality of the Conservative or Liberal legislation could not be effectively appealed in time for the next election and left the province with absolutely no constraint on special interest-group spending. The sky was the limit.
Writing in the National Post, journalist Randall Denley said, “Ford’s new election rules don’t mean that ordinary people won’t be able to speak out on issues. Ordinary people don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch attack-ad campaigns, anyway. The advertising rule is aimed at powerful, well-funded groups that seek to use their money to influence the outcome of provincial elections, purely for their own benefit.”
That means that right-wing organizations, like Ontario Proud or the organization that calls itself the Working Families Coalition and is funded by powerful unions, are restricted in what they can spend in attempting to affect the outcome of an election. They can no longer trump the individual rights of citizens charged with choosing who will govern them.
In my view, that is the way it should be. The rules apply to both the left and the right. Although much of the mainstream media try to do so, one cannot have it both ways. This is not just about limiting the ability of unions and other special-interest groups to affect an election, however advantageous that might be to the current government. If you oppose millions in Conservative-leaning big corporate money influencing elections, surely you believe the restrictions put in place for them, as they have been, should apply to the other side as well. To suggest otherwise is a dangerous one-way street that mocks the democratic process.
The federal legislation Bill C-10 tramples on the rights of individual free speech. The Ford Government’s election-financing legislation does the opposite. It does not assault democracy. It protects democracy. It allows individuals to independently express their view about who should govern them without inordinate pressure from heavily funded special interest groups, using funds from people who do not necessarily agree with them, with no limits on what they can spend and what they can say, in order to elect a government that will do their bidding.
The Toronto Sun’s Lorrie Goldstein had a point when he said, “It’s also hilarious to me that limiting the power of wealthy special interests to unduly influence elections – whether on the left or the right – is now suddenly considered ‘undemocratic’.“
It is important to note that special-interest groups have not been cut out of the electoral process. They have simply been restricted in what they can spend to prevent them from overwhelming an election campaign. They can still each spend $600,000 on advertising in the year leading up to an election and approximately another $100,000 during the Writ period.
In my view, it is important to have third-party spending limits in place for the next election and indeed for all elections that follow. Given the court decision that was recently handed down, the only way to accomplish that on time was through the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Constitution.
An article in the Toronto Star by veteran columnist Thomas Walkom, hardly a fan of Conservatives, was headed, “Ford is using notwithstanding clause exactly as intended”.
I agree with that.
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc. and enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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