That's the optimistic scenario! Power-crazed bureaucrats can be restrained or replaced.
The more frightening possibility raised by this week's RCMP "visit" to Conservative party headquarters is that the Canadian bureaucracy has once again revealed a deep, sustained and highly ideological hostility to ordinary rights of free speech.
Opponents of the Harper government accuse the Conservatives of cheating on campaign spending limits. As we have been reminded this week, Canada caps both national and also local campaign spending. In the last election, local Conservative candidates used some of their taxpayer-reimbursable funds to rebroadcast lightly edited national campaign advertisements.
The simplest thing to do would be to revise Canada's election laws altogether. Stop gagging speech. Stop telling the public and the candidates what they can and cannot say.
By spending their local money in this way (Harper opponents say), the local parties enabled the national Conservative party to exceed national spending limits.
It is this latter accusation that gives the dispute its ugly anti-speech character.
Just about everyone agrees that the most important factor in local constituency elections is national politics. A good candidate can add a few votes; a bad candidate can lose some more. But most voters in most constituencies vote Liberal or Conservative according to whether they wish to elect a Liberal or Conservative government. (NDP and Bloc voters know they won't elect a government, but they too vote based on national preferences.)
Nothing matters more to the success or failure of a local campaign than the success or failure of the national campaign. And that fact implies that the most effective form of local political spending is national political spending. What the Harper government's opponents seek to depict as a conspiracy is in fact rational political behavior, putting local political money to where it can do the most good for local candidates.
In other words, Elections Canada is attempting to create a bright political distinction between activities that in fact are not distinct at all. To police that blurry line, Elections Canada finds itself obliged to supervise, monitor and second-guess the speech activities of political candidates.
It is saying to local candidates: "You may think that running this ad is the most effective way to win your seat. But we won't permit it. We require you to say something else instead."
Elections Canada has a simple excuse for its conduct: It has a mandate to enforce the law limiting campaign expenditures. Parliament enacted the local/national cap scheme, and we're just doing our job.
It's the same excuse we hear from human rights commissions as they police speech: We have a mandate to combat harmful discrimination.
But administrative agencies have a lot of discretion and scope to interpret their mandates. They can choose to interpret those mandates to minimize their interference with core freedoms, or they can interpret their mandates in ways indifferent to core freedoms.
Canada's human rights commissions did not have to extend the definition of "discrimination" to include speech: That was a choice, a bad choice. And Elections Canada has a similar choice to make about how it treats speech. It could give local candidates wide scope to express themselves in the way that those local candidates think most effective--or it can create a new role for itself as the hall monitor of Canadian elections, adjudicating what candidates can and cannot say in their campaigns.
That is the path that Elections Canada is treading now, and it is a very dangerous one. Soon it will be telling candidates how much local involvement is "enough" and how much is not enough. Does the ad have to be produced locally? Or is it enough if it just features the local candidate? If it features the local candidate, how long must the feature last? Can a group of local candidates cooperate if the national party is not involved? And how many may co-operate before the group ceases to be "local" and becomes "national"?
Of course, the simplest thing to do would be to revise Canada's election laws altogether. Stop gagging speech. Stop telling the public and the candidates what they can and cannot say. Fight the real evils of corruption and influence-peddling by posting the names, addresses and dollar amounts of all political contributions on the Internet within 24 hours of receipt of the cheque.
Free political speech is essential to political freedom. And isn't political freedom the reason we have these elections in the first place?
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.