11/08/2011 09:13 EST | Updated 01/08/2012 05:12 EST

Harper Betraying His Principles on Free Speech

The Conservatives are using the same rationale to support their draconian contribution limits as the Liberals used to justify their undemocratic election gag law.

AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Stephen Harper used to believe in free political speech.

Back in the days before he was prime minister, while he was still serving as president of the National Citizens Coalition -- I worked with him for five years -- he vehemently opposed government attempts to stifle free expression.

For instance, as NCC president, Harper even went to court to fight what he called the "election gag law."

Enacted in 2000 by then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, this law imposes severe legal restrictions on how much money citizens or independent groups can spend on "election advertising."

At the time this law was passed, Harper viewed it as an attack on every Canadian's right to free political expression.

And no wonder. The gag law essentially makes it a crime for non-politicians to effectively and freely promote their ideas during federal elections.

Nor did Harper accept the Liberal government's flimsy justification for the gag law -- that we need such laws to stop "the rich from buying elections."

Back then, Harper maintained elections could not be bought, that Canadians made their political decisions based on the issues and facts, not on how much money a candidate or party spent. But that, as they say, was then and this is now.

And now Harper believes money is a corrupting and evil influence on our democratic process. He now seems to believe voters can be bought.

How else to explain the fact that Harper has not yet repealed this odious gag law, nor even made a move to modify it? (Even though in 2004, when he was a leadership candidate, Harper signed a pledge to scrap the law.)

What's worse, under Harper, the Conservative government is actually imposing election gag laws of its own.

For instance, the Tory government made it illegal for individuals to contribute more than $1,100 to a candidate or political party.

And now the Conservatives are moving to tighten this law even further by proposing a law to ban loans of more than $1,100 from individuals to federal leadership contenders.

To the Conservatives, such loans are somehow nefarious.

"We don't want wealthy individuals to have undue influence on the political process," explained Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal.

What's happening, of course, is the Conservatives are using the same rationale to support their draconian contribution limits as the Liberals used to justify their undemocratic election gag law.

The Liberals, too, used to talk about eliminating the influence of "wealthy individuals."

And make no mistake, the Conservative limits on political loans and contributions do -- like the Liberal election gag law -- infringe on free speech.

When I make a contribution to a political party I am making a political statement. For the state to limit my right to donate my own money to my own political cause is to limit my democratic right of expression.

So why has Harper done an about-face? Why is he suddenly in favour of restricting free expression? Simple.

Like the Liberals before him, Harper sees the real attraction of gag laws. They do nothing to make our elections fairer or less corrupt or to lessen the influence of the "rich" -- but they do effectively stifle opposition critics.

The election gag law, for instance, will silence pesky left-wing groups during federal elections.

And the contribution limits, meanwhile, will effectively cripple the Liberal party which, unlike the Conservative party, relies on fewer and wealthier donors.

It's a clear case of cynical, political pragmatism trumping principle.

Ironically, Harper detested this kind of political opportunism when he headed the NCC.

But again, that was then.

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