05/25/2015 04:26 EDT | Updated 05/25/2016 05:59 EDT

In Wild West pre-writ period, parties, advocacy groups issue political ads

OTTAWA - Think of it as the Wild West of political advertising.

Federal political parties and third-party interest groups are taking advantage of the unregulated pre-election writ period to spend untold millions on radio and television ads.

Once the election — scheduled for Oct. 19 — is formally called, all parties and interest groups will face strict spending caps.

But for now, they can spend what they please without having to disclose the amount to Elections Canada or anyone else.

The Conservatives, NDP and Liberals all released new television ads Monday, but no one will say how much they're paying to saturate the airwaves with political messages before voters tune out for the summer.

However, the Liberals say their latest offering constitutes the party's largest ad buy ever, outside of an election writ period.

New Democrats will say only that they're spending in "seven figures" for their latest ad.

The ruling Conservatives, who have by far the deepest pockets, are doubtless spending more than either opposition party. They released two new TV ads Monday that are designed to contrast Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's lack of experience with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "proven leadership."

And they're getting back-up for their message from Working Canadians, a right-wing, anti-union advocacy group that released two radio ads bashing Trudeau.

Once the election is called, groups like Working Canadians will be able to spend only $3,000 in individual ridings and $150,000 nationwide to promote or oppose a candidate or party. And they'll have to disclose their donors.

With the advent of fixed dates for elections, it's become easier for parties and interest groups to figure out the optimal timing and to budget for a pre-writ advertising blitz. Consequently, Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner suggested Monday it's time to consider whether spending restrictions need to be extended to the pre-writ period.

Of all the ads released Monday, those issued by Working Canadians are the most pointedly partisan. Spokeswoman Catherine Swift said they're intended primarily to counter radio ads released a few weeks ago by Unifor, the country's largest private sector union.

Unifor's ads accuse the Harper government of gutting health-care funding and doing nothing to help the struggling middle class.

But Working Canadians' ads don't actually address Unifor's contentions. Rather, they target Trudeau personally as the privileged son of a former prime minister who "doesn't understand middle-class families and he never will."

Swift maintained the ads aren't "anti-Trudeau," just "anti-dumb policy."

One of the ads asserts that Trudeau has consistently voted against tax breaks for seniors, homeowners, children's fitness and family caregivers — none of which Trudeau has said he'd scrap, at least one of which he actually voted for and all of which were included in omnibus budget implementation bills containing hundreds of unrelated measures.

Nevertheless, Swift said "the facts are correct, by and large," in her group's ads, compared to Unifor's ads, which she called "dishonest, dishonest, dishonest."

Shortly after the ads were released, Swift resigned from the board of the C.D. Howe Institute, a think tank that tries to remain scrupulously non-partisan.

Follow @jmbryden on Twitter

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