THE unfairness and absurdity of one of the B.C. government's more controversial laws was on full display this past week, as the B.C.
Government Employees Union was fined more than $3 million for having had the temerity to advertise during the byelection campaigns last March.
Governments love to control communications whenever possible, and this government in particular has a special fondness for that kind of behaviour. The B.C. Liberals have attempted several times to muzzle socalled "third parties" when it comes to communicating anytime near an election campaign.
The Elections Act sets tight spending limits for third parties (registered political parties have far greater flexibility and resources when it comes to advertising). The NDP government of the 1990s was the first to muzzle them, but the B.C. Liberals have gone much further, greatly expanding the so-called "gag law" in this province.
So what great offence did the BCGEU commit that warranted the kind of fine usually associated with highlevel criminal activity?
The union ran a 30second radio and television ad that promoted the value of public servants. With its collective agreement about to expire at the end of March, the union was obviously making the case that its members deserved a better contract.
The ads were not overtly political; they did not mention any political party, and contained only a passing reference to government cutbacks.
The byelections in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope were called on a Thursday. The ads were already up and running by then, but the BCGEU, just to play it safe, actually contacted Elections B.C. the following day to make sure their ads weren't in contravention of the law.
Through what appears to be a communications mixup, the union didn't realize Elections B.C. considered the ads illegal until the following Tuesday (a dubious ruling at best), at which time the ads were pulled.
Elections B.C. wasn't satisfied with that, however, and demanded to know how much the ads cost. The union said the total cost, provincewide, was about $280,000, and it put the cost per day in each of the ridings at about $285.
But Elections B.C. pegged it at $162,000 per riding, when the spending limits for third-parties were set at just over $3,000. So the union was deemed to have overspent by $159,000 in each riding.
The penalties for overspending are potentially huge.
They are 10 times the amount of money that was overspent, so the total penalty levied against the BCGEU was a whopping $3.2 million ($159,000 times 10 equals $1.59 million per riding).
This is absurd and, one can argue, anti-democratic (not to mention offensive, insulting and . . . you get the picture).
We're not talking about one of those notorious political attack ads here.
Nor was this the kind of political anti-government ad that the B.C. Federation of Teachers, for instance, is fond of airing.
Instead, this was a situation where a union was making a legitimate argument on behalf of its members, when suddenly the government called two byelections, thus catching the union in an immediate and arguably unforeseen bind.
Making this ridiculous situation even more embarrassing for the government is the spectacle of B.C. Liberals MLAs gleefully poking the BCGEU in the eye, insisting it drop its appeal of the penalty because it didn't "play by the rules."
Well, the rules are offensive and are an assault on free speech.
Rather than celebrating such an obnoxious assault on democracy, the B.C. Liberal caucus should be decrying it.
I've never been a big fan of unions engaging in full-on political advertising (as a union member myself, I don't like my union dues being spent in such a fashion), but connecting advertising to contract talks is perfectly legitimate.
The B.C. Liberals love to spend your tax dollars telling you what a great job they're doing, but when it comes to others spending their own money around election time, it's somehow fine to expose them to crippling financial penalties.
Of course, I'm not convinced an NDP government will repeal this gag law (they brought it in the first place, remember).
Because too often, politicians think that when it comes to free speech, only they deserve rights they deny to others.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.