Dr. Swann Debates Bill 35 – Fair Elections Financing Act

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, December 12, 2016.

Bill 35 – Fair Elections Financing Act (Committee of the Whole)

The Deputy Chair: Are there any comments, questions, or amend-ments to be offered with respect to this bill? The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I move an amendment to Bill 35, the Fair Elections Financing Act, and I have the appropriate number of copies to circulate before I speak to it.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Your amendment will be referred to as A9.

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. Let me know when you’d like me to proceed.

The Deputy Chair: Please go ahead.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I move that the bill be amended in section 43 in the proposed section 44.1 by striking out subsection (1)(c)(i) and substituting the following:

(i) the production of an election advertising message or political advertising message in the format in which the message is to be transmitted, and

by striking out subsection (1)(d)(iv) and substituting the following:

(iv) the transmission by a person, corporation or group, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of the political views of that person, corporation or group,

next, by striking out subsection (1)(g)(iv) and substituting the following:

(iv) the transmission by a person, corporation or group, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of the political views of that person, corporation or group,

and by adding the following after subsection (2):

(3) The Chief Electoral Officer may issue guidelines respecting the application of this Part and shall publish any guidelines on the Chief Electoral Officer’s website.

Madam Chair, I think this amendment is helpful for clarifying what should be captured under third-party advertising by doing three things. First, the amendment would clarify that the definition of production of election advertising should be focused on expenses that are directly associated with the making of a third-party political or election advertisement. The reason I believe this is necessary is that I don’t think we want to hamper organizations who perform work that is not meant to be captured. Civil society is important, public discourse is important, and these things should be protected. I also believe in making sure that we provide as much clarity as possible within our legislation, and I hope the government will agree with this approach.

Second, this amendment offers clarity to ensure that third-party advertising does not include the noncommercial transmission of political views expressed by individuals or organizations on the Internet, where there is no paid expense. We don’t want to inhibit that. We know that regulating third-party advertising helps improve transparency and confidence in the electoral system. However, we do not want to restrict individuals or organizations from engaging in public discourse through the Internet where election or political advertising is not in fact taking place. Some may argue that this intent is already clear in legislation, but I would submit to the House that we should be as strong and clear as possible in our language. This amendment clarifies that we intend to capture paid advertising where the third party, an individual or organization, is engaged in an advertising buy that comes in an expense, whether the expense is in-house or from a hired individual or firm.

The third rationale, Madam Chair, is that in order to ensure that third parties understand fully the letter, spirit, and intent of the legislation, I’m proposing that we make a change to allow the Chief Electoral Officer to issue guidelines with respect to this part from time to time. This will follow the common practice in federal elections financing, which allows the Chief Electoral Officer to work with the parties and issue important guidelines from time to time with respect to the application of these new rules.

Madam Chair, these are big changes, and I believe these amendments will help to ensure the smooth transition to a more transparent system, which will provide clarity and balance to our electoral system and public discourse. I encourage all members to consider this amendment.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member.

Are there any members wishing to speak to amendment A9? The hon. Member for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.

Mr. Nixon: Thank you, Madam Chair, for the opportunity to rise today. Actually, I probably have a couple of questions for the hon. member through you about his amendment. I do think that this emphasizes the concern that the opposition has had the entire way through this piece of legislation. As you know, Madam Chair, the work that the government members did during the Ethics and Accountability Committee to try to bring forward amendments to be able to get their campaign expenses paid for and the party expenses paid for ultimately derailed the entire process before it could complete its work on third-party advertisement.

Now, third-party advertisement was one of the most important things that the committee was undertaking. There are some con-stitutional issues with that. As well, there are some clear examples across the country and across North America, for that matter, where things like PACs have had some serious issues that we have to make sure that we get right. I think the member is touching on some of

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those areas that it would’ve been nice to have seen completed to make sure that we did get it right and that we were understanding the issue completely.

I probably will have some more to say in a second, but first I would like to ask through you, Madam Chair, to the member if the intent of this is to make sure that individuals could protect their right to free speech on concerns they have through things like social media and mechanisms that they may have on this. First, I would support that intent, and I believe the committee made it clear that they support that intent. But my concern in the way that I’m reading this right now – and I’ve only had it for a short time – is that this would allow a PAC to complete their $150,000 cap on billing content of some sort for a general election, let’s say, and then we allow something like a trade union or a corporation to be able to unlimitedly use social media and their resources to push that content out across the sphere, which I think would be counter-productive to what we’re trying to do on third-party advertising.

If the member is trying to make sure, again, that an individual or an individual corporation could share something on Facebook or say that they agree with something, that would be freedom of speech, something that I think we should protect. But the way I’m first reading this right now, Madam Chair, is that this will leave a bit of a loophole and allow trade unions and corporations to be able to use their financial resources, et cetera, to push this out on social media.

So I’d like to get a little feedback on that, and I’ll probably have a few more comments to make after that, Madam Chair.

The Deputy Chair: The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Well, thank you, Madam Chair. I’m puzzled as to why that would be the interpretation. I think it’s relatively clear in the amendment that what we’re trying to do is ensure a level playing field for all in a nonwrit period, especially, to express themselves, their views, their political views, their economic views freely. This amends the original bill in order to ensure that we include corpora-tions and not exclude them from their rightful role in society, again limiting that role in the writ period but allowing it in the prewrit period so that everyone is indeed on the same level playing field, social media notwithstanding.

….

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I, too, remember this discussion in committee and felt at the time that this was a solution in search of a problem. I don’t think we’ve really seen the evidence that the cost of this relative to the benefits of this is really a reasonable approach. I’m quite convinced by the Member for Vermilion-Lloydminster, with his very passionate and clear argument, that this a step too far, that this is a bridge too far. We have not seen this as a significant problem. It’s going to cost very substantially in terms of manpower and dollars, and as far as I’m aware, no other jurisdiction is following this guideline.

Yes, indeed. After someone is nominated, after someone is running for election, we have every right to know everything about where this potential new member of the Legislature or Parliament is receiving their support, but I think it’s just a step too far. And I hope the members in the government will consider this in terms of the balance between the right to know everything and the costs to the public purse and the relevance of nomination processes. In the vast majority of cases for Albertans it’s simply not substantive enough to require this, what I would also echo as an overreach in terms of what is a legitimate concern about transparency and accountability. I have yet to see the evidence that it is a problem that requires this magnitude of intervention and solution.

Thank you, Madam Chair.