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Go figure! Elections Alberta demands group with no ads on website register for ads on website

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Alberta Chief Electoral Officer O. Brian Fjeldheim

We may not have to register our rifles in Alberta, but folks out here are wondering if we need to register our opinions.

The latest round of heavy handed letters from the enforcers at Elections Alberta threatening groups of citizens that dare to express opinions on the current provincial election campaign with heavy penalties have recipients scratching their heads and wondering what's going on.

Public Interest Alberta and at least one other progressive citizens' group have received letters signed by Alberta Chief Electoral Officer O. Brian Fjeldheim stating that "it has come to the attention of this Office (you are) operating a website that is making statements that may be construed as taking a position on an issue with which a registered political party or registered candidate is associated during the current Provincial General Election." (Emphasis added.)

The letter goes on: "In our opinion, this constitutes political advertising as defined in Section 44.1(1)(g) of the Election Finances and Contributions and Disclosure Act… which states: 'political advertising means advertising, for which there would normally be a charge, in any broadcast, print or electronic media, including telephone, fax, internet, e-mail and text messaging, with the purpose of promoting or opposing any registered party or the election of a registered candidate, including advertising that takes a position on an issue with which a registered party or registered candidate is associated…'"

If the recipients do not register as a third-party advertiser under the terms of the act forthwith, PIA was warned, they risk "significant penalties being assessed." Indeed, the penalties are considerably more significant than if we were dealing with many criminal matters -- fines of "$100 000 if the third party is a trade union, employee organization, corporation or other organization."

Now, PIA is not the first group to receive such a letter from Fjeldheim. The Alberta Medical Association, the powerful de facto union for the province's doctors, famously ran afoul of the controversial election-speech gag law last month for buying mildly worded and non-partisan newspaper advertisements urging Albertans to speak up about health care during the election campaign.

Seeing as their ads were scrupulously non-partisan, the docs were astonished when they got their nasty letter. However, being as rich as Croesus, they simply told the Chief Elections Officer to drop dead -- using more diplomatic language, naturally.

However, a case could be made (by Fjeldheim, not by me), that the AMA did in fact violate the act -- as unconstitutional and unreasonable as it may or may not be -- because the group’s statements did take a blandly general sort position on an issue with which a registered party is associated, and furthermore put it in a paid advertisement in a commercial newspaper.

Alert readers who search the PIA election website, however, will have difficulty finding anything resembling a paid advertisement. So, even if it is constitutional in Canada to, in the words of the legislation, ban "taking a position on an issue with which a registered political party or registered candidate is associated" in a paid advertisement, presumably you would still have to pay for an advertisement!

Seeking some illumination for my fuzzification, I called Elections Alberta, where I spoke with Drew Westwater, Director of Election Operations and Communications.

So, I asked Westwater, does this letter mean Elections Alberta thinks operating a website with an opinion amounts to advertising, as readers of the letter will certainly agree it implies, under the terms of the legislation?

Absolutely not, Westwater explained. Operating a website is just fine. "Any Albertan can do that … if it isn't paid advertising, then you can just go about your business and that's OK!"

But why then has an organization with no advertising on their site received a threatening letter about having advertising on their site?

Alas, Westwater explained, the act forbids him to comment on any specific case, such as the one involving PIA.

All right, but generally speaking would it be acceptable for any group to operate a website expressing opinions about political parties without violating the act? Yes, Westwater stated. After all, he emphasized, Elections Alberta is not in the business of interfering with free speech.

And so, readers of this blog will be relieved to hear as its author certainly was, that Elections Alberta won't require your humble blogger to register his opinions or face an individual fine of $10,000.

OK, so what if instead of putting the information on a website, since such an action has in fact attracted the unwanted attention of Elections Alberta, a group were to put it in a news release? "A news release is not paid advertising," Westwater explained, perhaps just a little impatiently. "It's a news release!"

Mmmmm-hmmmm… So how, I wondered (forgetting that Westwater was unable to speak about specific cases) did Elections Alberta come to the conclusion that PIA deserved a letter to straighten it out?

Well, it turns out, Elections Alberta responds to complaints. Indeed, if PIA disagrees with the conclusion reached by Elections Alberta, the solution is set right out in the letter, which goes on to say (these are my words, naturally) that recipients should review the complicated and confusing guides to the law available on Elections Alberta's website.

Having done that, the April 5 letter advises, "either register with Elections Alberta as required by the legislation or provide this office with an explanation of why you believe the legislation does not apply to your situation." (Like, for example, there's no freaking' advertising on our website!) "We should appreciate hearing from you by April 12, 2012, or sooner." (That would be today.)

Ah, so Elections Alberta has responded to a (possibly mischievous) complaint from a person or persons unknown (at least to PIA and the rest of us), and then, without even bothering to look at the material complained of, has sent out a threatening letter!

These are standards worthy of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Service’s Facebook Investigations Division! However, seeing as this is a non-criminal matter in the province of Alberta, the onus is on the accused to establish its innocence.

Now, the history of this act dates back to former Premier Ed Stelmach's profound displeasure with a series of TV advertisements purchased by a group of trade unions in 2007 that took him to task for having "no plan, no plan."

Because of other provisions limiting contributions, registering under the act has the effect of making it very difficult for any group other than a political party to finance an effective advertising campaign against a sitting government. Perhaps that is why, to date, only three groups have registered: the anti-union Merit Contractors Association, the hopelessly naïve Democratic Renewal Project, and Value Drug Mart Associates Ltd. (The Merit Contractors, by the way, categorically and convincingly denied having anything to do with finking out PIA.)

Speaking of mischief, however, perhaps the Wildrose Party will try to give the impression this is more evidence of the governing Conservatives, now led by Alison Redford, acting in a less-than-democratic fashion.

Fair enough, I suppose, but jaundiced voters will recall the important role that influential Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson played in creating this particular piece of legislation before he crossed the floor from the Conservative benches.

As the Airdrie MLA's online biography states: "Mr. Anderson also wrote and sponsored a private member’s bill called the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure (Third Party Advertising) Amendment Act (2009). This legislation strengthens Alberta's electoral process by regulating third-party election advertising in the same manner as political parties. The bill was proclaimed into law in October 2009."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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