OTTAWA — As conservative premiers wage war against the federal Liberals’ agenda, Elections Canada reconfirmed Tuesday that the provinces will be able to spend unlimited amounts of money campaigning against Justin Trudeau’s team in the lead-up to the general election this October.
The independent non-partisan agency that runs federal contests and is charged with applying and interpreting the election law said third-party rules don’t apply to provincial governments.
“It is Elections Canada’s view that if Parliament intended to restrict the advertising and other activities of provincial governments, it would have stated so explicitly in the Canada Elections Act,” agency spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier told HuffPost Canada.
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Third parties are considered any person or group that isn’t a candidate, a riding association, or a registered political party. These individuals, organizations or corporations are legally allowed to participate in the election by trying to sway voters to one side or another, but many of their activities are regulated and their spending is capped.
Some groups are already active. Canadians watching Monday’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals with the Toronto Raptors would have noticed a series of ads by a group calling itself “Engage Canada.” The TV spots warned of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s “weakness” and his desire to “follow” Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cuts to health care and education.
Another group, calling itself “Shaping Canada’s Future,” ran an anti-Trudeau ad, with actors listing the prime minister’s purported failings. It echoed the Conservatives’ own ads against Trudeau before the 2015 campaign in which a panel reviewed the Liberal leader’s qualifications to hold the country’s top job.
Right now, it’s a free-for-all. Third party groups don’t have to declare who is funding them, and there are no spending limits. On June 13, however, new legislation kicks in, creating a pre-writ period during which some third-party activities will be more closely scrutinized.
But provincial premiers, who have made no secret of their plans to campaign actively against Trudeau, won’t face any federal caps.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who plans to campaign in the Greater Toronto Area for the Tories, told CTV in April that he’ll fight Liberal legislation he disagrees with, and then “I will do what I can to elect a federal Conservative government.
“I make no apologies for that.”
In Ontario, Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford’s government is going to force gas station owners to display prominently anti-carbon tax stickers that take aim at federal Liberal policy. Ontario taxpayers are also paying for anti-federal carbon tax advertisements on the airwaves.
According to Ontario’s proposed regulation, the mandatory pump stickers would have to be displayed as of Aug. 30, just before the federal writ drops. Gas station operators who don’t comply would face fines of up to $10,000 a day.
In the House of Commons Tuesday, Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt invoked a letter sent by conservative provincial premiers (Kenney, Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister, Ontario’s Doug Ford and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs) together with Northwest Territories’ independent premier Bob McLeod to Trudeau in which they outlined their opposition to bills C-69 and C-48.
Those bills make good on federal Liberal promises from the last election and are intended to streamline natural resources project approvals and to protect British Columbia’s northern coast from crude tanker traffic. As the premiers outlined, however, many feel the proposed legislation will make it impossible to develop the infrastructure needed to move their resources to B.C.’s coast.
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In their letter, obtained by Global News, they warned the prime minister that the bills should be refined or abandoned “to avoid further alienating provinces and their citizens and focus on uniting the country in support of Canada’s economic prosperity.”
Trudeau responded that conservative premiers’ “threatening national unity if they do not get their way is completely irresponsible” and said the threats need to be condemned by anyone who aspires to be prime minister.
Raitt noted that the premiers represent 59 per cent of the Canadian population and 63 per cent of Canada’s GDP.
Tuesday, Elections Canada released its political financing handbook for third parties.
Between June 30 and whenever the election is called in September, third parties will be able to spend a maximum of $1,023,400 across the country to campaign either in favour of or in opposition to a party or candidate. That’s cash for phone banks, to send text messages, to create or send organic social media content, for canvassing, for election surveys, and for advertising.
It notes that issue-based advertising, ads that effectively campaign against one party or candidate by focusing on an issue, for example pipelines or Bill C-69 or C-48, is not covered under spending rules during the pre-writ period.
It is only when the writ drops that issue-based advertising is included in third-party election spending caps. Once the election is formally called, third parties will be able to spend only $511,700.
Election Canada warns that third parties are prohibited from circumventing, or attempting to circumvent, spending limits by splitting into two or more third parties, or by acting in collusion with another third party, so that their combined regulated expenses exceed the limit.
It also notes that a third party must not collude with a registered party, candidate, potential candidate or person associated with a candidate’s or potential candidate’s campaign. That third parties must be careful to act independently, to not be influenced by a party or candidate, or be seen as consulting them on activities.
Partisan activities or election surveys conducted by provincial political parties are not regulated activities under the Canada Elections Act.
When Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams actively campaigned against the Conservatives in 2008 with an “Anything But Conservative” campaign, Elections Canada said Williams registered as a third party and used his own funds.
Liberal Party spokesman Braeden Caley suggested conservative premiers should not be using “public funds for partisan political campaigns.”
What’s especially concerning for Caley, however, are reports that Scheer and his campaign team are having “secret closed-door strategy sessions with oil industry executives and interest groups about how they can ‘silence environmental critics,’ make pollution free again, and use oil-industry front groups to influence the election,” he said.
The Globe and Mail reported in April that Scheer and two senior members of his team had met with a pro-oil advocacy group to discuss strategies for defeating the Liberals and silencing environmental critics.
“We expect everyone in our democracy to follow these important rules,” Caley told HuffPost.
Some Conservatives suggest that the rules are actually too loose.
Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu worries about the impact of foreign funding.
The new rules, brought in as a result of changes made by the Liberal government, do not prevent foreign groups or funds from engaging in issue-based advertising that attacks or promotes one party this summer during the pre-writ period.
“If you have third-party foreign-funded organizations, it is clearly wrong,” she told HuffPost.
During the writ period, third-party groups won’t be able to use foreign funds for advertising campaigns that support or oppose a party or candidate by taking a position on an issue with which that party or person is associated.
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Still foreign funds could be used on unregulated activities, such as advertising on a general issue that is not associated with any one party, such as protecting the environment.
“I don’t think it’s levelled, because we’ve clearly established there are more left-leaning groups, and many of them foreign funded,” Gladu said.
On Wednesday, Fair Vote Canada signalled its intention to act once again as a third party promoting electoral reform.
Calling the Liberals’ broken electoral reform promise in the last “a betrayal,” the group’s president, Réal Lavergne, said Fair Vote Canada will try to help elect a minority government by supporting friendly NDP, Bloc Québécois, and Green candidates in swing ridings.