The largest of Quebec's labour unions, the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) is appealing a court decision that has fined them for illegally contravening electoral law, in the provincial election campaign of 2003.
It isn't often (never) that I support their positions. The union, while not as radical as in the past, still represents a sovereignist/socialist view of Quebec.
That being said, the right of the union to take a political position and it's right to inform it's members and the general public of that position, should remain sacrosanct.
The Quebec Election Act puts controls on who may spend money in an election campaign and does so (according to them) in the interest of 'transparency' and to eliminate 'outside' interference. Political parties and their candidates are the sole entities entitled to raise and spend money in an election campaign and must do so according to strict limits placed upon them by the election act.
Under the law, it is illegal for a private citizen, a company or any organization to spend money in an election campaign. It's effect is rather chilling and clearly anti-democratic.
It is this part of the law, sections 413, 415 and 420, that the union is attacking as unconstitutional under the Canadian Charter of Rights and the Quebec Charter of Rights. It seems likely that the union will prevail.
The part of the law that forbids third party spending is inspired in part, by the Referendum Act of 1980.
Back then, as a prelude to the upcoming referendum on Quebec sovereignty, the Parti Quebecois passed a law that mandated that an official committee be set up for both the YES and NO sides and that no spending outside these committees be permitted. Furthermore, the funding would be equal for both sides and would be provided by the government. The law was enacted, not so much in the name of fairness, but rather to make sure that the federal government couldn't unduly influence Quebec voters.
In 1995, on the eve of the second referendum the sovereignist government set the spending limit of 5 million dollars for both the YES and NO committees.
During the referendum, a shadowy group called 'Option Canada' (funded largely by the federal government), intervened both financially and organizationally in the referendum. In the dying days of the campaign they organized a massive unity rally and bussed in thousands of people from outside the province in a show of federalist support. They were also involved in other assorted election shenanigans, including an effort that accelerated citizenship for new immigrants so that they could vote in the referendum.
Months later, when these actions became known, the sovereignist side went apoplectic, claiming that the referendum was 'stolen.' The No side was accused of illegally spending up to 5 million dollars. The Director General of Elections, Pierre F. Côté, filed 20 criminal charges of illegal expenditures against Option Canada.
While this was going on, the referendum law itself, became the subject of a legal challenge by Robert Libman, the then leader of the Equality Party (a small federalist provincial party). The case made it's way all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where in 1997, the court ruled that the law was too restrictive. All charges against Option Canada were subsequently dropped.
With history and precedent on their side, let's hope that the FTQ wins their appeal.
Restricting public debate and comment by third parties in either an election or a referendum is not in the public interest. It enforces the unacceptable ideal, that only 'official' positions may be heard.
Whether we agree or disagree with the message of the FTQ, we need to defend their right to speak out publicly, on their own behalf.
If we don't defend their right to do, we will surely lose ours.