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Hot Button Bill: Libs Rush to Change Election Laws

Diverse foes say Bill 42 would crimp free speech, hurt poor voters.

Andrew MacLeod and Monte Paulsen 12 May

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here. Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes e-mail and invites respectful comment in the forum below.

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Premier Campbell: Libs headed for court?

The BC Liberals' plan to change election laws is drawing fire from diverse quarters and if passed will be challenged in court, vow critics.

Among those speaking out against Bill 42 are business groups who normally back the Liberals, civil libertarians, and advocates for people living in poverty.

Getting most of the flak are two aspects of the proposed legislation.

The new law would require new identification for all voters that some say will discriminate against the poor.

Another provision in the bill would cut way back on third party advertising in the months before an election, a change that business groups, unions and other organizations say censors their ability to educate voters about issues the parties might not be spotlighting in their campaigns.

Bill 42 appears fast-tracked for passage later this month without any debate in the legislature

'We are going to disenfranchise individuals'

"With one small stroke of the legislator's pen, we've gone back decades," said Murray Mollard, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. "We are going to disenfranchise individuals who are unable to vote because they do not have the requisite ID."

The proposed rules included in Bill 42, the Election Amendment Act, are similar to ones the federal government introduced last year. They require voters to have identification issued either by the province or the federal government that includes their name, photograph and address. Unlike the federal rules, the provincial rules also accept proof of status under the Indian Act, but they are still rousing opposition.

"If you don't have a driver's license, the odds are pretty good you're going to have a tough time when you show up at the polling place," said Jim Quail, an attorney who is executive director of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre. "This is a very serious issue for people in the Downtown Eastside, where many people do not have identification documents." Tenants who have recently moved will also have trouble, he said.

It's a strategy stolen from the Republican Party in the United States, he said, which brought in similar rules about 18 months ago in various states where the party controlled the legislature. "The people who were going to lose the right to vote in those states were going to be tenants, students, relatively mobile people, who tend to vote Democrat."

Federal challenge underway

BCPIAC is already challenging the Canadian federal rules. "I have a case before the British Columbia Supreme Court that will be heard in a couple of months' time to challenge the federal legislation," said Quail. "We expect the provincial legislation, if they are foolish enough to proceed with it, to fall along with the federal law."

Mollard said his organization is also ready to go to court. "The BC Civil Liberties Association is going to participate in the challenge to the federal legislation," he said. "I would expect my organization to be very enthusiastic about a challenge to the B.C. legislation as well."

Others hoped Attorney General Wally Oppal would see the folly of introducing legislation that is unlikely to withstand a court challenge and either withdraw it or amend it before the government passes it.

"Before we end up going to court, is there room for the simple voice of common sense?" asked Al Mitchell, a manager with the Lookout Emergency Aid Society. "All we're saying is, hey, here's some things that you ain't maybe thought about. Stop. Take a second look."

Oppal was unavailable.

Redefining 'election advertising'

Another section of the Election Amendment Act limits the amount people other than political parties can spend on advertising in the five months before an election.

Groups like the B.C. Teachers Federation, Hospital Employees Union, Mining Association of B.C. and the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C. have been heavy advertisers during recent elections. There have been no limits on their election advertising since the B.C. Supreme Court struck down similar legislation in 2000.

Under the new rules, third parties would be limited to spending $3,000 in any one constituency, and not more than $150,000 across the province. The bill redefines "election advertising" as "an advertising message that promotes or opposes, directly or indirectly, a registered political party or the election of a candidate, including an advertising message that takes a position on an issue with which a registered political party or candidate is associated."

"We are paying attention to it," said Byng Giraud, the vice-president of policy and communications for the Mining Association of B.C. Most companies give directly to the B.C. Liberals, he said, rather than engaging in the "political game" directly. "It's not the end of the world, that legislation, but we are paying attention to it."

Law not needed: ICBA's Hochstein

The mining association does have questions about what would be considered "election advertising," Giraud said. Could they buy ads, he asked, promoting mining week, celebrating the industry, or would the issue be considered "associated" with a particular party? "We may have to go to some lawyers and see what this will mean to us."

Asked if the mining issue is associated with one party, he said, "If you look at the record, one would say the companies themselves have given more to the B.C. Liberals. We're clearly a little more comfortable with the current government, [though] some days that's not the case."

Over at the ICBA, president Philip Hochstein said the Liberals' legislation is a fix for something that is not a problem. "I think there's a role for people or groups to play in the election," he said. "I don't think democracy is hurt by many voices participating. I think it's helped at the end of the day."

Getting a message out to the public costs money. "I find it a little unfortunate that it was curtailed," he said.

Sure, some individuals or organizations can afford more advertising than others, but that is the world we live in, he said. "People are bombarded with competing and conflicting messages all the time. There are endless sources of information. I think the public is smart enough to sort that out."

Asked why more businesses wouldn't just give the money to their party of choice and let it represent their views, he said, "I think it's because sometimes we have a message that the party's not interested in putting out."

Bill will pass without debate

While there are plenty of people with reasons to oppose the bill, they will have to hurry to express their concerns to the government.

The bill is among those that will be deemed passed at 5 p.m. on May 29, even if it has not yet gone through all the normal stages of debate. It was introduced and given first reading along with several other bills on April 30, the last day during the session that new legislation could be introduced.

"That's cutting off debate," said Vancouver-Kensington MLA David Chudnovsky. "That's taking an undemocratic bill and passing it in an undemocratic way."

The MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, Jenny Kwan, said the Liberals are breaking a promise to allow full debate on changes that affect how elections are run. "They're limiting the Opposition's ability to actually debate this bill, and they're limiting the community's ability to respond to the government's bill," she said.

PIAC's Quail said the Liberals may have strategic reasons for hurrying the bill through. "The government is determined to ram this through as fast as they can so there isn't an opportunity for people to see what they are doing to us."

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