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OPINION: High price of free speech

The time available for public engagement on an upcoming referendum question is narrowing.
(File Graphic)
Demand is growing for substantial amendments to the Electoral System Referendum Act. (File Graphic) - SaltWire Network

Unprecedented fines far higher than anything applied under Election Expenses Act

BY BRENDA OSLAWSKY

GUEST OPINION

When the provincial Liberal government introduced its Electoral System Referendum Act last Thursday, the price of free speech reached a new high.

On the face of it, the $75,000 in funds available to both the proponent and opponent sides seems generous, but the trade-off is a muzzle on freedom of expression.

In the 2016 plebiscite, Elections P.E.I. spent hundreds of thousands on their public education campaign, even though they sent the brochure out only once, instead of twice as we had been told they were planning. That scrapped mailing in July or August meant that when the coalition started going door-to-door in September, a lot of voters were unaware of the plebiscite.

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In October, after the one and only mailing had been sent out, it was apparent to volunteers that awareness of the vote had increased significantly — but many were still unaware of the vote, or what it was about. In addition to the government’s modest efforts, the coalition raised $75,000 in funds and in-kind donations for its own educational campaign

It appears that neither Elections P.E.I. nor the government plans any educational campaign. So that begs the question, if it took hundreds of thousands of dollars to convince 37,000 to vote in 2016, how can the government honestly expect that markedly less money will inform substantially more Islanders about the choice they are being asked to make this time? No groups who are advocating for one position or the other will have sufficient funds to print and mail anything to all residences on the island.

And should a community group with some initiative think about raising additional funds to make up for the government shortfall — not an option. The fines for transgressing this legislation even slightly are steep. As laid out in Section 26 of the bill, which includes a personal liability clause, should a person or organization spend even a penny over the $500 limit, the individual responsible will be fined $10,000. And should the Referendum Commissioner feel that any member of an organization knew of the transgression, they will be fined the same amount as well. That should dry up volunteer recruitment quite nicely.

These fines are unprecedented in Island history and far higher and more draconian than anything applied to candidates and parties under the Election Expenses Act. One can only conclude that the onerous fines outlined in this Act here and now are designed to produce a serious chill effect — and for what? To intimidate those trying to educate voters about proportional representation — which provides better oversight, transparency and accountability and is used by most democracies around the world?

We should be ensuring that as broad and thorough a discussion as possible happens. Instead, it seems that the government is trying to do the opposite. Ultimately, this Act might not be so much about levelling the playing field as plowing it under.

- Brenda Oslawsky is a member of the P.E.I. Coalition for Proportional Representation and is vice-president of Fair Vote Canada.

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