Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of May 19, 2008)


We Won't Get Fooled Again - Yeah, Right


  By John Martin

You may have noticed the full-page ad that showed up in several B.C. newspapers last week featuring a woman with a strip of tape across her mouth and the headline, "Gordon Campbell wants you to just shut up."

The ad is part of a campaign to oppose Bill 42, a piece of legislation that would place strict limits on how much advertising dollars third parties may spend during the five months leading up to a provincial election.

Specifically, the law would restrict individuals or groups from spending more than $3,000 in a particular riding and a maximum of $150,000 across the province.  This may sound like a lot but in reality, wouldn't go too far in purchasing big market media space and time. (If you bought a full-page newspaper ad, it could run you about $15,000 or more. A 30-second commercial on prime-time television is about the same cost.)

In opposition, Campbell was a fierce critic of these so-called "gag laws" but he seems quite enthusiastic about limiting pre-election debate this time round.  No doubt the legislation is specifically aimed at labour unions who have spent a king's ransom in advertising dollars attacking the government and would surely be planning a pricey, anti-Campbell campaign in the months leading up to the next election.

Critics of the legislation are rightly outraged that they will be all but silenced in the near future. There is a similar law at the federal level but it only restricts spending during the actual campaign.

The B.C. legislation would essentially stifle critics for almost half a year prior to voting day.

The end result of these laws is that politicians and journalists alone get to define and dominate the dialogue during a campaign. This worked particularly well for the federal Liberals, who had near unanimous support from every major media outlet in the country for almost a decade.  In three consecutive elections journalists and commentators would trip over themselves praising Jean Chretien's government and no one else had a realistic opportunity to sing a different tune.

Ultimately, gag laws are about silencing voices and controlling the debate during an election. That the government of B.C. has decided it wants to do so for a full five months is frightening. Gordon Campbell's government has indicated it is prepared to invoke closure to ensure Bill 42 becomes law within a month. With the next election a full year away, as of mid-December it will be very difficult to purchase advertising for the purposes of criticizing the government or its policies.

Regardless of whether one supports or opposes this government, they should be very concerned about a gag law of this magnitude. It constitutes a back-door strategy to trample free expression and it insults the public's intelligence by insinuating that a series of nasty ads by a special interest group will determine how they vote. For Gordon Campbell to bring in a law five times more restrictive than the one he opposed when the NDP were in power is shameful.

It reminds me of the line in a song by The Who, "meet the new boss -- same as the old boss."

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2008