Third-party advertisers take the spotlight in the Ontario election

Mostly Liberal supporters shell out to get heard above the din

How to get heard above the din

Andrew Tolson/Maclean's

Outsiders have never been terribly welcome in Canadian election campaigns. In federal votes, the 95 per cent of us who don’t belong to registered parties face a bulwark of laws restricting third-party campaign spending—rules rooted in the fear that, left unguarded, democracy will be sold off to the highest bidder. This theory has been an article of faith among left-wingers since the early 2000s, when a conservative activist named Stephen Harper waged a court battle against the limits, to the delight of Bay Street’s heavy hitters.

The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately upheld federal third-party spending limits. But few provinces have strong limits of their own. And if Ontario’s current election campaign is any guide, fears of big business stealing elections for conservative parties may have been laughably misplaced. As of last week, all six third-party advertisers registered with the province’s election watchdog were either labour organizations or coalitions who have in the past run attack ads against Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. Meantime, an array of environmentalists, NGOs and green entrepreneurs have joined forces in hopes of saving the province’s two-year-old Green Energy Act, with plans for unprecedented forays into the ground-level campaign. Leaders of the ad hoc group deny they are acting for or against specific candidates or parties. But Hudak is the only leader committed to undoing the act’s key provisions.

The Tories might have seen this coming. Four years ago, they felt the full force of a labour-funded coalition called Working Families, which took advantage of Ontario’s loose laws on third-party advertisers by unleashing more than $1 million worth of anti-Conservative attack ads that helped propel Premier Dalton McGuinty to victory. The Tories later complained to the province’s chief electoral officer, claiming the group was a front for the Liberals. An investigation indeed revealed ties between Working Families and Grit campaign director Don Guy. But the probe found no evidence that the group was outright controlled by the party.

By then it was clear the Conservatives had other deep-pocketed foes. Spending records filed with Elections Ontario show that fully 90 per cent of the $2.3 million raised by third-party advertisers for the 2007 campaign went to organized labour or groups opposed to specific Tory policy positions. Among them: the Canadian Union of Public Employees ($238,000), Ontario Federation of Labour ($125,000) and a group called the Ontario Electricity Alliance, which opposes deregulation of hydro utilities ($69,000). Most of the big spenders are back this time around, including Working Families, which has been airing a devastating attack ad portraying Hudak as a stooge of Bay Street financiers.

The true wild card, however, may be the as-yet unnamed green-energy coalition, which raised more than $1 million at its first meeting a month ago. Because the group has not registered with Elections Ontario, it is not allowed to campaign on behalf of specific parties. But that also means it doesn’t have to disclose the names of its donors, which is just fine with its leaders: those who spoke to Maclean’s did so on condition of anonymity.

Why the secrecy? For starters, because many in the group hope to work with Hudak should the Conservatives win the election. Some are renewable energy entrepreneurs who already bet heavily on the generous prices for clean power guaranteed under the Liberal’s Green Energy Act; others are activists hoping a Hudak government could be persuaded to keep parts of the law intact. “I can tell you that we represent more than 10,000 people in the province,” says Tom Rand, a venture capitalist who invests in green technology, and a member of the group. “But we are absolutely not campaigning for or against any one. That’s not what we’re about.”

They’re also going where few non-partisans have gone before. With McGuinty and Hudak running neck and neck in polls, the group is planning its own so-called “ground war,” competing with the parties for voter attention in the most hard-fought ridings. Organizers are reluctant to discuss the strategy publicly, but acknowledge they’ve borrowed it from recent party campaigns like those of the Harper Conservatives. Says one: “This is about finding the people who are most receptive to our message and getting them to vote.”

Buttressing their efforts will be those of sympathetic environmental groups, who are taking non-partisan advocacy to new levels in hopes of keeping green issues on the election agenda. One Toronto-based charitable organization, Environmental Defence, recently announced the mock candidacy of an eight-year-old girl named Penelope, who has been touring the province in Hillary Clinton-style pantsuits, stumping for clean air and water. “It’s time to get serious about the environment,” she says in her online video. “Pantsuit serious.”

The idea, says Rick Smith, the group’s executive director, was borrowed from a similar, successful campaign used in a past Australian election, and represents a sharp break from Environmental Defence’s past practice. “For years, we’d do a sort of bloodless comparison of the party platforms, put out a press release and call it a day,” he says. “This time around, we wanted to create a living, breathing strategy to educate Ontarians through the whole election period.”

Whether their efforts make a mark remains to be seen. But political scientist Henry Jacek, for one, is intrigued. Today’s tightly controlled party campaigns offer little chance for left-of-centre groups to get their messages out, he notes, as leaders hammer on two or three themes. “If they’re going to be heard inside of an election period,” says Jacek, who teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, “they’re going to have to do something really unusual.” The Penelope campaign meets that description, he adds, but no one should mistake it for non-partisan altruism: “I don’t think it’s a great leap to say these groups are basically campaigning for the Liberals.”

For Gerry Nicholls, one of the small-c conservatives who fought in the early 2000s for the right to do third-party campaigning, the irony of that is a touch thick. As a former head of the National Citizens Coalition, he inherited Stephen Harper’s court challenge of the federal election gag law, after the future prime minister returned to political life. “I could never understand why left-wingers were so opposed to our case, because it was going to stop them as well as us,” says Nicholls, now a political consultant. “These days, I’m hearing a lot from the left, and there’s no conservative voice to counterbalance it. It’s a bit one-sided.”

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