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B.C. 'gag law' reintroduced with amendments

B.C. Premier Christy Clark in Victoria, Tuesday March 27,2012.

Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government has brought back a campaign-spending law that was previously struck down as unconstitutional, saying it has made changes to address the court's concerns.

"The court said it didn't like the law by my predecessor, so what we have done is we have brought in a revised law which responds to the court's concerns – which I think were legitimate," Premier Christy Clark said Tuesday in Victoria.

The restrictions on campaign spending – which would result from amendments to the provincial Election Act – are part of a bundle of legislative changes introduced Tuesday through the Miscellaneous Statues Amendment Act.

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The proposed changes would shorten the pre-campaign period – from 60 days to a maximum of 40 days – during which spending limits would apply. Under the proposed changes, the spending limits would not apply when the House is in session or for at least three weeks after it adjourns.

A previous version of the law – known as Bill 42 and introduced in 2008 – faced a court challenge from labour groups, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the British Columbia Teachers' Federation.

The province said restrictions were necessary because fixed election dates made it more likely that interested parties would spend money earlier than they did when election dates were uncertain, resulting in a potential spending free-for-all in the days leading up to the campaign period.

The bill, often referred to as a gag law, restricted election advertising to $3,000 in a single electoral district and $150,000 overall for the 88 days leading up to an election, including the 28-day campaign period.

Labour groups attacked the bill as an assault on free speech. In 2009, a B.C. Supreme Court judge found the 60-day limit was unconstitutional. The province appealed. Last October, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the ruling.

Ms. Clark said the government will refer the bill to the courts to ensure they are okay with it.

"There are all kinds of third-party groups all across the spectrum that spend a whole bunch of money outside the campaign period, and for us, for all British Columbians, people understand why it's important to have spending limits for political limits," she said, citing big-spending American campaigns.

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"So what we are trying to do is find a way to respect people's right to free speech, particularly when the House is sitting so that citizens can discuss issues before the legislature freely, but also make sure that there are some controls on campaign spending."

If the province has concerns about out-of-control election spending, it should move to ban corporate and union donations as suggested by the NDP opposition, said NDP justice critic Leonard Krog.

"I think they're trying to revisit the campaign they lost last time in terms of trying to limit expenditures by other parties," Mr. Krog said, adding that he expects the amendment to be challenged in court. "I think their [the government's]attempt around changing it is really more around form rather than substance."

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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