News / Kitchener

Interest groups outspend NDP in byelections

WATERLOO REGION — Third-party interest groups spent nearly $1 million on advertising during the September 2012 Ontario byelections, almost four times more than the NDP which emerged victorious in Kitchener-Waterloo.

The groups include well-known unions like the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which spent $846,000; the Ontario Medical Association, which spent $88,000; as well as other organizations such as the Not This Time Coalition, which spent $37,000, according to returns filed with Elections Ontario in April.

The Ontario New Democrats, whose successful campaign sent former school board chair Catherine Fife to the legislature to represent Kitchener-Waterloo, spent only $255,000 on their efforts.

Third parties could have spent a virtually unlimited amount of money during the byelection or any other campaign because Ontario’s election laws do not restrict interest groups the same way as they restrict spending by political parties and candidates.

“This advantages deep-pocketed groups with political opinions,” said York University assistant professor Robert MacDermid, who has studied Ontario’s campaign finance legislation at length.

An amendment to the Election Finances Act, signed into law by the Liberals in June 2007, continued to allow Ontario corporations, individuals and unions to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, and advertise as much as they desired with few restrictions, but forced them to register with Elections Ontario and release their spending details.

Before 2007, third-party groups did not have to make their spending public, or even identify themselves.

The absence of a spending cap has spurred explosive growth in third-party ad spending ever since. In the 2007 general election, third parties spent $1.8 million on ads. In 2011, they spent $6 million.

“I think even here it is really alarming,” MacDermid said. “They’re outspending the provincial parties. It’s already gotten to the point where the Liberals should do something about it.”

Greg Essensa, Ontario’s chief electoral officer, noted the spike in third-party spending in his 2011-2012 annual report. He recommends that third-party fundraising and ad spending be capped.

Ontario Attorney General John Gerretsen declined to comment on whether the government is planning to restrict third-party spending in the future, but confirmed in an email from his spokesperson that he will be “taking a close look” at Essensa’s recommendations.

He defended the 2007 amendments, saying that they amounted to the first government regulation of third-party election spending in Ontario’s history.

“These rules ensure that there is transparency and free speech in our election campaigns,” Brendan Crawley, attorney general ministry spokesperson, wrote in an email.

Kitchener-Conestoga PC MPP Michael Harris, whose party has frequently been targeted by the Working Families Coalition — a third-party group composed of public sector and construction unions that has spent more than $1 million in each of the last two general elections — said he wants spending limits put in place for third parties, even if a large group was spending to help his cause.

“Should it be vice versa, my opinion would still be the same,” Harris said. “These groups are, in essence, Super PACs,” he said, referring to America’s independent political action committees that can spend an unlimited amount of money so long as they do not donate to a political candidate. “They unfairly tilt and advantage to one group, individual party or otherwise. That’s why we need to fix that. It’s not the Ontario way.”

Third-party groups cannot spend more than $4,000 per riding for advertising, up to a national maximum of $200,000, during federal election periods. Outside of an election period, they’re as free to spend as their Ontarian cousins.

“They’ve got the federal rules as a template,” MacDermid said. “They could easily just adopt those.”

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