Third party election advertising has long been a contentious issue in Canada and elsewhere. In Canada, we saw it used effectively by unions and radical leftists to undermine the election campaign of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives led by Tim Hudak and help to re-elect the Liberal government led by Kathleen Wynne. As we head into the federal election campaign, union backed groups like Engage Canada are again running attack ads against conservative politicians, namely the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper.
This has understandably led to misguided calls by conservatives for an end to union funding of political advertising. The best way to ensure that the best ideas and the best politicians succeed isn’t to further restrict advertising, but to allow more freedom of expression. Any laws banning advertising by unions, or organizations backed by them, would necessarily involve banning advertising by businesses and other public advocacy groups like the National Citizens Coalition and The Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Such gag laws already exist at the federal level during the election writ period. I disagree with these laws and any restrictions on political speech. They are inconsistent with The Charier of Rights and Freedoms guarantees of freedom of expression and association. That they apply to communication during an election campaign makes them especially egregious. In the United States a similar law banning political communications by corporations and unions within 60 days before an election was found to violate the First Amendment (Citizens United vs FEC) by the Supreme Court of the United States.
With the federal fixed election date law it is now possible to time advertising for the pre-writ period substantially reducing the effectiveness of election gag laws. With a federal election scheduled for October, political advertising has already begun both by political parties and advocacy groups like Engage Canada. In order to end such advertising the law would have to extend to advertising outside of election writ periods. To ban this would entail a permanent ban on public advocacy advertising by all third parties and would amount to a total ban on political dissent outside of the political parties.
The most serious arguments against third party advertising are that unions use dues that are collected from their members, many of whom don’t agree with the positions taken by the unions, and that the dues are publicly funded through the tax deduction for union dues.
Unions aren’t the only organizations engaging in self-serving advertising to promote changes in government policy. Many businesses spend money on advertising to promote their views on matters of public policy, like Enbridge advertising in favour of pipeline construction. Their advertising and lobbying efforts also benefit from tax deductibility for the businesses.
The political parties themselves also receive massive public funding for their campaigns. The problem with union backed advertising isn’t that it’s publicly subsidized by tax deductions, but that the funds are extracted involuntarily from workers through mandatory dues deduction.
Political parties gain most of their funding from donations voluntarily given by their supporters. Businesses use their own revenues to promote positions that are in the interest of the business and advocacy groups like The National Citizens Coalition and The Campaign Life Coalition rely on voluntary donations from their supporters.
It is only the unions that are effectively granted the power to tax their members in order to fund political campaigns. Mandatory dues check off (also known as the Rand Formula) require employers to deduct union dues from pay cheques for all workers, whether members of the union or not. In this way unions are taking money from workers who aren’t members of the Union and have no interest in supporting the political campaigns run by the unions.
I fully support the right of unions to run advertising promoting their political views, but only if they obtain the funds for the advertising through voluntarily obtained contributions of members. A ban on Union advertising would violate the freedom of expression of union members, but forcing people to fund such advertising when they are not in agreement is a violation of the right of freedom of association of workers.
Everyone regardless of their political views should be entitled to promote their political positions individually or in concert with others. Campaign advertising restrictions interfere with that right and need to end. At the same time no one should be forced to pay for the promotion of views they disagree with. This is unfair to the workers, violates their rights of workers and creates a bias in favour of pro Union advertising during elections.
The solution is to end the Rand Formula for funding unions in Canada. Those who voluntarily support the positions taken by the unions will remain free to help fund them, but those who don’t should be allowed the freedom to withhold union dues or donate to causes they agree with. This won’t end Union backed political advertising, but it will ensure that it represents the views of those actually funding it.