High price of free speech

Un­prece­dented fines far higher than any­thing ap­plied un­der Elec­tion Ex­penses Act

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY BRENDA OSLAWSKY Brenda Oslawsky is a mem­ber of the P.E.I. Coali­tion for Pro­por­tional Rep­re­sen­ta­tion and is vice-pres­i­dent of Fair Vote Canada.

When the pro­vin­cial Lib­eral gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced its Elec­toral Sys­tem Ref­er­en­dum Act last Thurs­day, the price of free speech reached a new high.

On the face of it, the $75,000 in funds avail­able to both the pro­po­nent and op­po­nent sides seems gen­er­ous, but the trade­off is a muz­zle on free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

In the 2016 plebiscite, Elec­tions P.E.I. spent hun­dreds of thou­sands on their pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion campaign, even though they sent the brochure out only once, in­stead of twice as we had been told they were plan­ning. That scrapped mail­ing in July or Au­gust meant that when the coali­tion started go­ing doorto-door in Septem­ber, a lot of vot­ers were un­aware of the plebiscite.

In Oc­to­ber, af­ter the one and only mail­ing had been sent out, it was ap­par­ent to vol­un­teers that awareness of the vote had in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly — but many were still un­aware of the vote, or what it was about. In ad­di­tion to the gov­ern­ment’s mod­est efforts, the coali­tion raised $75,000 in funds and inkind donations for its own ed­u­ca­tional campaign

It ap­pears that nei­ther Elec­tions P.E.I. nor the gov­ern­ment plans any ed­u­ca­tional campaign. So that begs the ques­tion, if it took hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to con­vince 37,000 to vote in 2016, how can the gov­ern­ment hon­estly ex­pect that markedly less money will in­form sub­stan­tially more Is­lan­ders about the choice they are be­ing asked to make this time? No groups who are ad­vo­cat­ing for one po­si­tion or the other will have suf­fi­cient funds to print and mail any­thing to all res­i­dences on the is­land.

And should a com­mu­nity group with some ini­tia­tive think about rais­ing ad­di­tional funds to make up for the gov­ern­ment short­fall — not an op­tion.

The fines for trans­gress­ing this leg­is­la­tion even slightly are steep.

As laid out in Sec­tion 26 of the bill, which in­cludes a per­sonal li­a­bil­ity clause, should a per­son or or­ga­ni­za­tion spend even a penny over the $500 limit, the in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­ble will be fined $10,000. And should the Ref­er­en­dum Com­mis­sioner feel that any mem­ber of an or­ga­ni­za­tion knew of the trans­gres­sion, they will be fined the same amount as well. That should dry up vol­un­teer re­cruit­ment quite nicely.

These fines are un­prece­dented in Is­land his­tory and far higher and more dra­co­nian than any­thing ap­plied to can­di­dates and par­ties un­der the Elec­tion Ex­penses Act.

One can only con­clude that the oner­ous fines out­lined in this Act here and now are de­signed to pro­duce a se­ri­ous chill ef­fect — and for what? To in­tim­i­date those try­ing to educate vot­ers about pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion —which pro­vides bet­ter over­sight, trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity and is used by most democ­ra­cies around the world?

We should be en­sur­ing that as broad and thor­ough a dis­cus­sion as pos­si­ble hap­pens. In­stead, it seems that the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to do the op­po­site.

Ul­ti­mately, this Act might not be so much about lev­el­ing the play­ing field as plow­ing it un­der.

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