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Election spending limits rejected again

 

The B.C. Court of Appeal has rejected a second attempt by the B.C. Liberal government to restrict third-party election advertising before the next provincial election.

In a ruling released Thursday, the three-judge panel unanimously concluded that extending restrictions for 40 days before the formal 28-day election campaign is still an undue infringement on freedom of expression. An earlier restriction, extending 60 days before the 2009 election campaign, was struck down after a group of public sector unions challenged it in court.

Attorney General Shirley Bond said Thursday the government will not appeal the latest ruling or attempt new restrictions in advance of the May 14, 2013 vote.

Bond said the latest legislation met some of the court’s tests of fairness, but the government was not able to show that third-party advertising had unduly influenced voters in B.C. She said the U.S. election system shows what can happen when unlimited spending by wealthy interest groups dominates elections.

“I think the court has provided us with a very thorough analysis and clear reasons, and have concluded that any restrictions to the advertising in the pre-election period is unconstitutional,” Bond said. “We sent this case to the B.C. Court of Appeal for advice, and we are going to accept that advice.”

Former attorney general Wally Oppal made the original amendments to the B.C. Elections Act in 2008, saying they were needed to prevent election debates from being “hijacked by third parties.” The amendments limited political parties to spending $2.2 million in the 60 days before the official 28-day election campaign, and advocacy groups such as unions and business groups can spend only $150,000 during that time.

Oppal, his successors Mike de Jong and Bond have all argued that more restrictions are needed since B.C. went to scheduled elections every four years, which allow interest groups to time their advertising to avoid the caps imposed during a formal 28-day campaign.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation, the B.C. Nurses’ Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators originally challenged the spending restrictions in court.

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