News / Canada

Elections Ontario head calls for limits to advertising by interest groups

Opposition parties are backing a push from Ontario’s chief electoral officer for limits on advertising by interest groups such as the anti-Tory Working Families coalition of unions.

Noting that such “third-party” advertising tripled to $6.7 million between the 2007 and 2011 provincial elections, Greg Essensa said in his annual report that the legislature needs to set up an independent body to study a cap on spending and contributions, among other things.

The federal government limits spending at $188,000 per group but Ontario has no caps, with Working Families one of three that spent more than $1 million in the last election campaign. In fact, Working Families bought $2.1 million worth of advertising on its own.

“We would like to see stronger parameters around third party advertising,” Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod said Monday, echoing calls from party leader Tim Hudak last year.

“There is something to be said when Working Families Coalition spends more in an election campaign than the third party (NDP) does and they do so without any of the same rules that govern political parties,” she said.

Health Minister Deb Matthews — who is co-chair of the Liberal campaign that could take place later this year — wouldn’t say whether her party supports limits on third-party advertising.

But Matthews said the Liberals have “a lot of respect” for advice from Essensa at Elections Ontario, who also called in his annual report for more strict financial reporting requirements for third party groups and wants “stricter registration and anti-collusion provisions.”

The Conservatives have long complained Working Families is a Liberal front group but have not been able to prove any connections in several court actions, most recently at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath agreed it’s time for a thorough review of Ontario’s election financing laws.

“We’re one of the provinces that hasn’t done any real reform when it comes to election financing,” said Horwath, who has previously called for limits on spending before elections are called as well.

A report during the 2011 election from York University politics professor Robert MacDermid found the Liberals, then headed by former premier Dalton McGuinty, were beneficiaries of “loose” campaign finance rules allowing unlimited third-party ads that make a mockery of spending limits on political parties.

At the time, McGuinty said he didn’t believe unlimited spending by third-party groups was unfair, telling reporters “We’ve got a great system here.”

Also in his annual report, Essensa said Ontario should consider moving provincial elections to weekends or holidays to boost voter turnout, as has happened in other jurisdictions. Quebec, for example, holds municipal elections on Sundays, New Zealand has general elections on Saturdays and France on Sundays.

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