Get ready for an orgy of election campaign ads

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 28, 2017
a screenshot of an advertisement against Premier Kathleen Wynne
Ontario's Progressive Conservatives recently launched a new attack ad against Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne.

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Yes, the next Ontario election isn’t until next June. And yes, a new and much stricter campaign finance law was recently passed in the provincial legislature.

But the fine print of that new law is now coming into sharper focus, the result being that you can expect an orgy of political advertising over the next five weeks. Here’s why.

Last week, Elections Ontario — the non-partisan agency that oversees our elections and enforces the rules — held a briefing for groups planning to advertise and participate in the upcoming campaign. It was a revelation for some of them.

You may have heard about the tough new spending restrictions on parties and special interest groups. But those restrictions don’t kick in until six months before the election campaign kicks off. In that six-month pre-election period, groups can’t spend more than $600,000 on advertising. They do have some discretion on how they spend that money: it can be $100,000 a month, or they can drop all $600,000 on ads the day before the campaign starts, or something in between. They are also limited to $100,000 on advertising during the election period itself.

However, what that also means is that until that six-month window begins in November, it’s back to the old Wild West rules. There’s no limit on how much you can spend, and no obligation to disclose the sources of your campaign spending.

The Progressive Conservative party, flush with a ton of cash in its coffers thanks to an aggressive fundraising effort last year by leader Patrick Brown, is already out there with a new TV attack ad against Premier Kathleen Wynne. Designed to shore up the party’s base, the ad features a rather unflattering picture of Wynne on a dark background, with ominous music and a voice-over calling the Liberals untrustworthy and corrupt. (Interestingly, the ad doesn’t repeat Brown’s inaccurate statement about Wynne’s “standing trial” in the Sudbury by-election case, but rather accurately points out she “is testifying” in a trial.)

A Tory source tells me he’d expected the Liberals to have their own attack ads out already, and says he’s surprised the party has kept its powder dry so far. The Liberals are known not to be as cash-flush as the Tories right now, which may help explain the delay.

Queen’s Park observers are also keenly interested in finding out what one of the biggest players in the election advertising game has up its sleeve. A third-party interest group called Working Families has spent more than $4.6 million during elections since 2007, trying to persuade people not to vote for parties hostile to the interests of labour unions. That’s meant running attack ads against the Tories.  

At the moment, I’m reliably advised that Working Families is “passing the hat” to garner a war chest for its ad buy that you can expect to see on the airwaves by mid-October. The group has done extensive polling and conducted focus group tests. The scripts for the ads have been written. I’m told an ad attacking Brown, similar to the one the Tories are now running against Wynne, could be on air in a week. If actors are required for a more extensive shoot for an ad along the lines of this one run against former PC leader Tim Hudak in the 2011 campaign, the timeline might stretch to about 10 days.

But according to some experts, even the new campaign spending law has some loopholes. Yes, after the six-month pre-election period starts, groups such as Working Families will be restricted in how much they can spend on ads. But there are no restrictions on what they can spend hiring people to go door-to-door to campaign against the Progressive Conservatives.

In addition, the $600,000 campaign ad spending limit refers to $600,000 per group. The PCs are concerned a group such as Working Families might create a whole series of “sub-groups,” each of which could spend that $600,000 over six months on ads.

Technically, the law prohibits coordination among groups for the purposes of bypassing the law’s restrictions. But as my Tory source told me, “It’s hard to prove coordination. And none of it will be discovered until six months after the election, when the groups are obliged to report on their activities to Elections Ontario. If at that point irregularities have been found, what judge is going to overturn the results of an election?”

Despite numerous efforts in the past, the Tories have never been able to encourage the creation of their own Working Families type of third-party support group, and have no plans to do so for the 2018 campaign either.

“We’re not aware of anything happening on that front and won’t encourage it either,” my PC source told me. “We’re going to play it clean. There’s no reason not to.”

Finally, despite the discovery of all the loopholes designed to get around the election ad expenses, Working Families still doesn’t like the new law and has, according to a source within the organization, hired prominent lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo to launch a legal action to have the law overturned. The group believes the spending limits are “draconian,” the inside source says, and infringe on the group’s free speech rights.

If, after making that case, a judge were to overturn the law between now and election day, Ontario would almost certainly return to the old days of no-holds-barred campaign spending, despite the government’s best intentions of cleaning up the system. 

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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