By Laura Carlin
From anti-abortion groups to businesses organizations, student groups and concerned citizens, so-called third parties view election campaigns as a perfect opportunity to get their point across. A "third party" is a person or group that is participating in an election through advertising or advocacy.
Third parties usually get involved either to influence voters, to influence what issues get discussed in a campaign, or both.
Third parties are often interest groups that follow particular issues. One such group is the Taxpayers Coalition. But individuals can also register as a third party or form a group specifically for the election. In the 2000 election, three separate groups registered as supporters of Anne McLellan.
In the 2004 election, third parties registered with Elections Canada spent more than $700,000 trying to make their voices heard.
The biggest spender was the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), which spent $110,661.04, mostly on radio ads in Quebec, on the issue of employment insurance.
Most third parties didn't come anywhere close to the spending limits mandated by Elections Canada. New rules, in place for the 2004 election, say that no third party can spend more than $3,000 (indexed to inflation) in a particular riding, or $150,000 (indexed to inflation) nationally.
Because of the limits and current advertising rates, many third parties opt to either concentrate their spending on certain ridings or regions, or use their allowable expenses to tell their members how to become active locally.
That's the strategy the Council of Canadians uses. This year, the council will be sending 100,000 Voters Guides to chapters across the country in an effort to teach those members how to make their voices heard.
"We don't advocate any party or any individual candidate, but we try to educate the public about the issues of the parties that we campaign," says John Urquhart, the group's executive director. He says the goal is to make sure "those issues are discussed and debated, and often they're not in election campaigns. They get overwhelmed by the regrettable shallower aspects of electioneering."
Urquhart says his group is considering some advertising this time around, in the form of billboards in targeted areas. He says that may be limited by the restrictions on spending in an individual riding.
But Urquhart isn't complaining. He says it's a good thing that spending is limited. "I think there needed to be controls on the amounts that corporations in particular can spend to influence an election. We're a citizen's organization," he says, "Our money comes from individuals across the country. We would never be able to spend the allowable maximum across the country."
The National Citizens Coalition has an entirely different response to those restrictions. "It denies the right of all Canadians to free election speech," says vice-president Gerry Nicholls. "It give politicians a monopoly on speech during an election." The NCC isn't in favour of any restrictions on third-party spending.
Despite the debate over how much, it is difficult to say whether the spending is effective at all.
In the 1988 election, many business interests spoke out about free trade. The Royal Commission on Electoral Reform estimated their spending at $4.7 million. Researchers later had a hard time figuring out if their involvement had any effect on the outcome of the election. One suggested there was no discernable change in voting patterns, another suggested that the pro-free trade ads actually had a slightly negative effect on the Conservative party they were trying to support.
In 2000, at least three groups were supporting Liberal McLellan in her Edmonton Centre riding. She won by just 733 votes.
In the United States, third parties have become much more organized than in Canada. Such groups are also limited in how much they can give to candidates, but are allowed to spend as much as they like on advertising. Their impact is much greater as a result.
The "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign during the 2004 election questioned presidential candidate John Kerry's war record. It was organized by a third party, and became an issue that Republicans and Democrats felt the need to address.
Canadian third-party groups can't spend unlimited amounts, and elections law says they can't attempt to circumvent the spending limits by splitting into several groups. But it's difficult to say whether a group could collect large amounts and distribute it to third parties to spend, $150,000 at a time.
So far, there are no limits on how much individuals, companies or unions can donate to third parties, but all contributions over $200 must be included in a report to Elections Canada. There are rules against donations from foreign sources and governments.
In November, Mauril Bélanger, the deputy house leader and minister responsible for electoral reform, proposed a bill to limit contributions as well, but the bill was not passed before the government fell.
One new political party says it was formed partly because of the restrictions on spending by third-party groups. The Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party of Canada figured that if they couldn't spend as a third party, why not register as a political party to get their message across. Before the spending restrictions were put in place, the AACEV acted as a third party, spending money in swing ridings to influence the vote. "We did ads, we did literature inserted in a number of publications that dropped in the key swing areas, and we did telemarketing, found the key swing voters and got them out," says the party's leader, Liz White.
But, she says now the restrictions are too tight. "You can barely put phones in and print a couple of pieces of literature for $3,000," says White.
Top 10 third-party spenders from 2004 federal election
F�d�ration des travailleurs et travailleuses du Qu�bec (FTQ) ||$110,661.04|
|Vote for a change.ca ||$91,853.00|
|Canadians for Equal Marriages Inc. ||$89,092.38 |
|Canadian Federation of Students ||$68,529.24. |
|The Council of Canadians ||$65,835.14|
|Canada Family Action Coalition ||$47,702.92 |
|CUPE ||$46,337 |
|Les sans-chemises - elections 2004 ||$27,123.15 |
|BCWF Political Action Alliance ||$23,599 |
Source: Elections Canada