Mr. Speaker, this is an occasion for which I as a parliamentarian am deeply grateful that this institution exists and I have an opportunity to express myself when I have serious misgivings about legislation that is passed through the House.
By coincidence, the member who spoke before me, the member for Brandon—Souris, touched precisely on the area of concern that I wish to devote my remarks to, and that is the question of third party advertising and how it was dealt with in Bill C-2, the previous legislation, and how it should be dealt with in the future.
I have to give some background just so people will understand what happened. The member for Brandon—Souris in fact gave some of the background and I am grateful that he has done so because it saves me going over that ground.
I think the general public should understand that the Canada Elections Act sets limits on campaign spending by candidates. In each riding it varies a little according to geography, size and population, but most candidates for a federal election are restricted in their spending during the campaign to usually around $60,000. I think my campaign ceiling for election expenses is around $65,000.
Going back a little, during the 1993 election campaign, which was my first experience in running as a candidate, the law was such that there was a limit under the law on third party advertising expenditures. There was also a blackout period.
What is being referred to there is the idea that people or groups who are not related to the political party or the candidate might wish to buy advertising during an election period to support one candidate or another, or one party or another, or to advance a controversial issue during an election campaign, hopefully to get a debate going among the candidates.
In its wisdom, parliament, prior to the 1993 election, put restrictions on third party advertising. The idea was that the limit of expenditure on groups who wanted to take out advertising during election campaigns supporting one candidate or another was restricted to $1,000. Indeed there was a very long blackout period.
The theory behind that limitation was that if candidates were restricted in their spending, they were restricted in their spending so that there would be an even playing field. Whether one is a candidate from the government in power, an incumbent, a candidate from a party in opposition or a candidate from a small fringe party, everyone faces the same amount of potential election spending. It is relatively modest at $60,000. Most groups and organizations can raise the amount of private donations necessary to reach that objective in spending, so it is quite reasonable.
However, when we add third party advertising into the equation, as it exists in the United States where there is a great deal of soft money around during an election campaign, then there is a danger of distorting the process. There might be a situation where a special interest group, a corporation or whatever else—and this does happen in the United States—spends enormous amounts of money, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars even in a single riding, to run advertising election material with the specific intent of seeing that one particular candidate, whether it is an incumbent or otherwise, does not succeed in the election. The restriction in my view in 1993 was very appropriate.
As was described by the member for Brandon—Souris, that provision was challenged prior to the 1997 election by the National Citizens' Coalition on the charter grounds that it limited the right to free expression during an election campaign. This provision prior to the 1997 election campaign was suspended.
This was my second election campaign, Mr. Speaker, and I should tell you that in my first mandate as a member of parliament I undertook quite an initiative to bring special interest groups that were receiving public funds to account. I put out several reports calling for transparencies of such groups and I named some of these groups.
Needless to say, during the 1997 election, when the limit on third party advertising disappeared, what happened was that I was enormously attacked by television ads, by print ads and by radio ads. The spending to attack me as the candidate by these special interest groups, some of them charities but most of them not for profit organizations linked to various charities, was easily far more than I spent. In fact in the 1997 campaign, even though my election spending ceiling was about $65,000, I only spent $32,000.
The reason is that I am very much a grassroots candidate. I have no corporations behind me. I have no big interests behind me. My campaign donations are exclusively from the ordinary people in my riding who have confidence in me as an individual. It is more their confidence in me as an individual than my party affiliation that has enabled me to raise the money in my riding that permitted me to run the campaign. I have received no money even from the party during my election campaigns, not only in 1997 but in the year 2000.
After the 1997 election campaign the government undertook, through Bill C-2, to address the challenge that the National Citizen's Coalition had succeeded in. When the Alberta court ruled that the limits on third party advertising expenditures were unconstitutional, the government undertook to redraft the law in Bill C-2 in which it defined limits on third party advertising expenditures.
What it said basically in Bill C-2 was that third parties that wanted to engage in buying advertising during an election campaign should be required to identify themselves and they would be limited to only spending $3,000 in each riding, to a maximum of $150,000 across the country.
There is the problem, and that is why I am here speaking today and why I am so very concerned. When Bill C-9 came forward it was an attempt to correct the problems that exist in Bill C-2, but there was no opportunity to address the problem of third party advertising because Elections Canada had still not reported on the effect of third party advertising under the new rules, who indeed had registered and what they had done.
I have here a printout from Elections Canada that describes the registered third parties that participated in campaign 2000. I got this only when Bill C-9 was in committee, so there was no opportunity to discuss it before committee and I have to bring it before the House. What we have here is the name of the registered third party and the name of the applicant who submitted an address, and that is the complete information.
Not surprisingly, what we have here is a number of special interest groups and organizations. We have unions. We have the Canadian Medical Association. We have an animal rights organization. None of that is surprising. We also have third party organizations that identify themselves only by name. We have Rick Smith of Red Lake, Rod Gillis of St. John's and Liz White of Toronto. That is all we know about them.
Bill C-2, the law that exists, requires no more information. It is sufficient to register a personal name. The people who are making the application are the people who take the name of the third party that is actually buying the advertising, presumably to take one stand or another for or against a candidate or for or against an issue that may be before the electors.
There is one set of third party registrants that I would like to draw to the attention of the House. The first one is the coalition for the Liberal member for Edmonton West. The next one is the Edmonton supporters for the Liberal member for Edmonton West. The third one is Edmontonians for the Liberal member for Edmonton West. The official titles of these third party organizations contesting this election name the member for Edmonton West. That member is the sitting justice minister.
Here is the problem. I am pleased to be able to say that there was no attempt to hide anything. These three organizations made it very clear that they were taking out ads under the law to support the Liberal member for Edmonton West. The problem is that under the current legislation, given that each third party organization that wishes to take part in the election campaign in a riding can spend $3,000, these three organizations were enabled to spend $9,000 in advertising to support the member for Edmonton West, the justice minister.
Indeed, had there been 10 such individuals who wished to be third party organizations buying advertising during an election campaign, they would have been able to spend $30,000 supporting the hon. member for Edmonton West. Twenty individuals would have been able to spend $60,000 supporting the hon. member for Edmonton West.
We can see the problem is that there is no control whatsoever on individuals, separately indeed, deciding to support an individual candidate in a riding and investing more money than that candidate himself or herself would spend in the riding. We have a problem there. The whole spirit of a ceiling on candidates' expenses could be circumvented by all the members of a riding association, for instance, deciding to take out third party advertising.
This is a dramatic example. I am actually very grateful that these people who were supporting the justice minister were upfront so that I can actually present this very dramatic example of what is wrong with the act.
Mr. Speaker, if you do not think that is meaningful you should be aware that the hon. member for Edmonton West won her seat by a single vote in 1993, and that in the year 2000, when these three third party organizations were buying ads in support of her, she won her riding by only 730 votes. If anyone should think that third party advertising does not have a bearing on an election campaign and cannot influence an election campaign, I assure them they are wrong, particularly if the campaign is closely contested.
When campaigns are closely contested, the real problem is that Bill C-2, as it exists now, makes it possible for organizations that we cannot clearly identify as to intent to spend enormous amounts of money to support one particular party or candidate in an election. In other words, Bill C-2, because it is loosely written, opens up the same opportunity for abuse in election spending as now exists in the United States.
I should say that it is not just a case where, as in the case I cited, an incumbent is getting support. There is also another organization which very amusingly calls itself the Zap-a-Rock organization, and it was obviously raising money in Etobicoke and we presume that it was aimed at the health minister.
What we do not know is the intentions of organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which is a very aggressive international for profit animal rights organization that makes a great deal of money by promoting animal rights causes. We have even here the Christian Heritage Party of Canada which has taken out third party advertising spending status and it, in the previous election, was a registered political party.
The point always comes down to this. As the legislation is written now, we have no guarantees as individual candidates that there cannot be spending on advertising in our riding by a dozen, 60, 50 or 100 special interest groups whose combined spending can more than overpower the campaign ceiling on expenditures that we are required to meet ourselves as candidates and that is defined by the Canada Elections Act.
It something so fundamental to our democracy that anyone in this country should be able to run for high office, for federal office, and not have to curry favour among outside organizations to enable them to spend money on advertising either across the country or in their ridings.
In my particular case, as someone who had alienated an entire sector, the not for profit sector, by criticizing numerous charities and by criticizing numerous non-profit organizations, in the election of 1997 they banded together, they grouped together and brought out advertising against me. The current legislation prevents that from happening, but there was nothing stopping every organization that I criticized from separately taking out $3,000 worth of advertising and going after me.
That is a chill on a member of parliament doing his duty, whether it is not for profit organizations or for profit organizations or any other special interest group out there. If members have to worry about organizations being able to buy more advertising against them during an election campaign than members are entitled to spend on the entire campaign, then I am afraid sitting members of parliament will think twice before they speak their minds in the House, will think twice before they aggressively go after those organizations they feel are not doing a proper job in this society or, indeed, are even questionable in the most literal sense.
We as members of parliament need to have a situation whereby the spending limits during an election campaign are known, are precise, and if organizations are dissatisfied with individual candidates, then the way they should go after those individual candidates is by investing in the parties in opposition to those candidates or in the candidates themselves of those parties, but, Mr. Speaker, it is very, very wrong, very, very wrong and dangerous if we have a situation where individuals, be they individuals as groups or individuals as persons, can separately, buy advertising during an election campaign, separately, that cumulatively might be an expenditure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars against an individual candidate. This is a very serious threat to our democratic process.
I would suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that when it comes to the charter and freedom of speech, it is understood that there have to be reasonable limits on freedom of speech. If freedom of speech is interpreted as allowing an open field of election spending against candidates when the candidates themselves are restricted in that spending, then I think we are all in serious trouble.