Saturday, August 18, 2007

No Gun No Funeral Reveals Holes in Election Law

Story raises interesting questions about what should and should not be considered campaign material

The quiet controversy surrounding the No Gun No Funeral website became a little bit clearer yesterday, as Michael Bryant admitted that he is, in fact, the man behind the site.

"It's my pharse; it's my idea; it's my website," Bryant admitted.

Ontario elections anwered an inquiry submitted by Martin Gobin, a candidate for the Libertarian party, by notifying him that the website doesn't meet the definition of political advertising because it doesn't directly promote Bryant or the Liberal party.

Bryant explained that no constituency resources were used to develop the site.

Yet with the Ontario provincial election coming up, the handgun ban just happens to be an issue Bryant has been campaigning on.

While the website may not be officially part of his campaign, it just happens to be a website that Bryant started that also just happens to help his campaign by reinforcing his message.

As such, the website is part of Bryant's campaign, if ony unofficially.

Bryant's website clearly falls into a deep grey area of election law. While it's true that it never mentions Bryant or the Liberal party, it's solidly connected to a campaign that Bryant himself has been running, and has admitted to running, in conjunction with his election campaign.

If one unquestionably accepts Bryant's site as a part of his campaign despite its obvious unofficial status, it opens up a pandora's box of issues that election law has yet to address. For example: the question of whether or not all websites that address an issue that a politician is campaigning on should be considered campaign advertising.

If so, this would categorize a wide variety of websites, from independent advocacy groups, many of whom would pre-date the election call, to blogs.

Consider the definition of third-party advertisers, which are required to register with Elections Canada if they spend $500 or more. While individual blogs certainly fall under the $500 mark, larger blogging groups like the Blogging Tories or Liblogs could certainly qualify, depending upon how much it costs them to maintain their servers.

Consider also that many bloggers don't become officially involved in the campaign, and as such remain unofficial commentators.

Then again, there is a difference: Bryant's website isn't being run by an independent advocacy group, or unofficially involved commentator -- it's being run by himself and the Liberal party. It isn't being run in the mere interest of increasing the profile of a particular issue -- it's being run with the intent of helping to win the election for a specific candidate who is already campaigning on that issue, whether or not that candidate and his party are explicitly mentioned at all.

One can also raise the question of where the funds to maintain and develop the site have come from. While they may not have come from the constituency, they have come from somewhere.

While No Gun No Funeral may not be officially part of Bryant's campaign, it's certainly a political entity. If Bryant and his colleagues are funding the site out-of-pocket that is one thing. But if they're accepting donations from the public for, or donating their own funds to, a separate "No Gun No Funeral" political entity, then they should be subject to the $1,100 contribution limit. If they've already contributed that money to another candidate or organization (perhaps their own), they could find themselves subject to an even greater legal quandry, one that seems ill-defined under current election law.

Whether or not unofficial side campaigns should be considered part of a candidate's election campaign will be an issue for Elections Canada and parliament to decide.

In the meantime, Bryant has managed to find a fairly serious loophole in election law that he's exploiting rather shamelessly, all in the name of deception and disinformation.

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