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Seven unions launched a challenge to B.C.'s election spending laws in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday. ((Mike Laanela/CBC))

A new provincial law that limits third-party spending during election campaigns should be set aside because it is deliberately designed to quash the voice of government critics at the most important moment in the democratic process, a lawyer told a British Columbia court Monday.

Joe Arvay, the lawyer for several unions challenging the law, made the argument to Justice Frank Cole during the first day of what's expected to be a 10-day hearing into the unions' claim that the law violates free speech rights.

The unions say changes to the Election Act, which were brought forward as Bill 42, violate the right of freedom of expression by restricting political debate before and during an election campaign.

Outside the court Monday, Irene Lanzinger, the president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said the law will prevent teachers from running advertisements highlighting their concerns about school closures, class sizes and special needs students.

"It is very, very important for teachers in this province to talk about what is happening in public schools and classrooms because government decisions have had a significant impact," said Lanzinger.

The law imposes spending limits on third-party advertising during the 28 days of a provincial election campaign and for 60 days beforehand.

The next provincial election is scheduled for May 12, meaning the restrictions would come into effect in mid-February, around the same time the government has promised to release its final budget before the election.

Law restricts spending

Previously, Attorney General Wally Oppal has defended the legislation, saying the Supreme Court of Canada has sanctioned election-spending limits as a means of fairness.

The law was passed by B.C.'s Liberal government in April, with the intention of limiting both corporate and union advertising on election campaigns.

Under the law each political party can spend up to $4.4 million on the 28-day election campaign, and up to $2.2 million during the 60-day period before the campaign begins.

Restrictions on third-party advertising, so-called election gag laws, limit persons or groups that are not running in the election to spending $150,000 during the entire 88-day period.

The law also bans contributions from federal political parties to prevent federal tax dollars from funding provincial campaigns.

Bill violates 3 charter rights, claim unions

The unions allege in their statement of claim that Bill 42 violates constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression by restricting reasoned political discourse and by preventing groups from effectively communicating their positions on election issues before and during an election campaign.

Lawyers will also argue that Bill 42 infringes on an individual's freedom of association by preventing individuals from collectively exercising their freedom of expression in the pursuit of common goals.

The claim also alleges that Bill 42 violates an individual's constitutionally protected right to vote by preventing individuals from effectively bringing their concerns and views to the attention of MLAs during the pre-campaign period.

The seven unions that initiated the legal challenge are the:

  • Canadian Union of Public Employees (B.C. division).
  • B.C. Teachers' Federation.
  • Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union 378.
  • B.C. Nurses' Union.
  • B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.
  • Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C.
  • Hospital Employees' Union.

Corrections

  • The third-party advertising ban applies for 88 days leading up to a provincial election, not 120 or 148 days as previously reported.
    Dec 09, 2008 10:30 PM PT