10/02/2011 11:43 EDT | Updated 12/02/2011 05:12 EST

Third-party ads blitz provincial campaigns, where strict federal rules absent

OTTAWA - Strict spending limits on third-party advertising during federal elections don't apply to provincial contests, and the current spate of provincial campaigns has marked an open season for special interest groups.

Public and private sector unions, corporations, lobby groups and business associations are taking advantage of lax provincial election rules in an effort to influence how voters cast their ballots.

With overlapping fall elections in Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and P.E.I, literally millions of dollars are being spent on ad campaigns that — while not officially sanctioned by any particular political party — certainly stand to benefit some of them.

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, for instance, is spending about $2 million on a cheeky blitz — "Refuse to vote against kids" — that appears to target the provincial Conservatives and favour the incumbent Liberals on education policy.

Working Families, a coalition of at least 13 public and private sector unions, has launched a blistering, multi-media campaign against Tim Hudak, the Ontario Progressive Conservative party leader.

The Manitoba Pork Producers are running an extensive provincial campaign, cost unknown, that diplomatically undercuts the incumbent NDP government's new water quality regulations for Lake Winnipeg.

And Samsung, the Korean-based corporate giant, is airing a slick TV ad in Ontario touting the jobs and other benefits of its $7-billion green energy contract with the Ontario government — whose cancellation is a key plank of the provincial Conservative opposition.

At the federal level, strict third-party spending caps of $188,250 nationally and just $3,765 per riding severely limit the scope of such third party influence.

The federal law, enacted in 2000, was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada by a private citizen named Stephen Harper, who happens to be Canada's current prime minister. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law, but it doesn't apply to provinces.

Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, sees anecdotal evidence of an increasing number of third-party ad campaigns over the past decade.

Ontario airwaves are awash with union-sponsored ads this fall. The Winnipeg Free Press has counted no less than seven separate third-party campaigns in that province.

"Part of it is because of the economic environment, where you're talking about (public sector) cuts," Middleton said in an interview from Toronto.

Middleton also speculates that Canadian voters are becoming more single-issue and community oriented, and less locked into the warring camps of political parties. There are more swing voters open to persuasion during a campaign, he argues, and that has emboldened third parties to get involved.

"I think people are disengaged at the traditional levels and have become more engaged in things that they see directly impacting them or their communities or family and friends."

In some respects, Middleton sees such engagement as a democratizing influence, but it clearly has a dark side.

Brian Schwartz, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, argues that special interests "beholden to the province" further imbalance a playing field that is already uneven.

"Short of collusion (with a party) with knowledge and consent, third parties are fairly free to advertise here," Schwartz said in an interview.

Schwartz actually sees a bigger problem of incumbent governments using public resources for partisan advertising between elections.

"There should be tight controls in all the provinces — mine, and at the federal level — on the ability of the government to use public money for what is in effect partisan advocacy," he said.

"Given the imbalance of resources for a government and other parties for propaganda between elections, that probably has more impact than what anybody can say or do during a short election campaign — especially in the 200-channel universe."

Schwartz lauds Ontario for its law that has the auditor general screen government ad spending for partisan propaganda.

Yet even there, the sitting government holds all the cards.

Middleton believes it's no coincidence that lush "Foodland Ontario" ads are ubiquitous on provincial airwaves this fall, with their upbeat ditty, "Good things grow in Ontario."

"Absolutely, that game is being played — make people feel good, and it works," said the marketing specialist.

Political finance disclosure laws, lobbying rules and third-party advertising regulations in Canada have, to date, kept things relatively in check, said Middleton, but he worries about the ascendant trend line of single-issue, third-party ads.

"In the U.S., frankly, it's just become ludicrous," said Middleton.

"If (politics) becomes totally a series of single issues, I think that's bad. The art of politics is tradeoffs."