Third-party advertisers spend $1M to influence election

The first big test of new election-advertising rules in Alberta is underway, with 20 advertisers contributing a combined $1 million in the hope of shaping the conversation and the results of this month's election.

Private business, unions try to shape message under new election-advertising rules

Twenty lobby groups are spending a combined total of more than $1 million to shape the message Albertans are hearing during this election campaign. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

The first big test of new election-advertising rules in Alberta is underway, with 20 advertisers contributing a combined $1 million in the hope of shaping the conversation and the results of this month's election.

After the NDP government was elected in 2015, it banned corporations and unions from donating to political parties and capped individual donations at $4,000.

It also created a third-party election advertiser registry, where unions, corporations and individuals could channel donations.

It is a new concept in Alberta, but a familiar one south of the border, where U.S. political action committees — better known as PACs or SuperPACs — routinely channel millions of dollars to sway election results.

So far, Alberta's third-party advertisers aren't as influential as American PACs. In fact, they are limited in their spending to a maximum of $150,000 before the election period, starting on Dec. 1, and another $150,000 in the 28 days after the writ is dropped, up until the end of the polling day.

Still, the $300,000 spending cap is enough for these groups to get their messages out. Albertans are seeing mail outs, radio ads, robocalls, videos, websites and social media campaigns, funded mainly by unions and private businesses with a stake in the election results.

Big business, big money

The biggest player of all third-party advertisers this time around is Shaping Alberta's Future. The group has ties to some large energy companies in Calgary and is promoting conservative principles, low taxes and the defeat of the NDP.

Shaping Alberta's Future has $298,000 to spend, just $2,000 shy of the spending cap.

The biggest corporate donors to Shaping Alberta's future are Calgary energy companies Surge Energy and Crew Energy, with donations of $75,000 and $30,000, respectively.

When it comes to individual donors, Michael Rose, the president and founder of Tourmaline Oil, donated $50,000 to Shaping Alberta's Future.

Rose's name pops up again as a donor of $20,000 to another third-party advertiser called Alberta Proud. That group says it wants to "bring back the Alberta advantage" and it says government is doing too much to appease "environmental radicals."

Alberta Proud did not respond to requests for an interview and Shaping Alberta's Future declined an interview request.

Labour unions get involved

Labour groups are the other big players shaping the message with third-party advertising during the campaign.

The biggest is the Alberta Teachers' Association, which represents more than 47,000 teachers in the province. It has $270,000 to spend and is hoping to use its money to push the issue of class sizes, with a campaign featuring an image of students pushed into a sardine can.

This image is part of an effort by the Alberta Teachers' Association to make class sizes an issue in the provincial election campaign. (Alberta Teachers' Association/Facebook)

"We want all parties to be considering the value of public education and perhaps we can change some positions within party platforms," ATA president Greg Jeffery said in an interview with CBC News.

The second biggest player on the union side calls itself Project Alberta. It has $135,000 and is funded entirely by UNIFOR, the largest private-sector union in Canada.

Another union-funded player that has made news headlines is Firefighters for Alberta. That organization mailed flyers  endorsing NDP candidates to targeted ridings. It is funded by firefighter unions, with $60,000 to spend.

According to Alberta Fire Fighters Association president Craig MacDonald, the group hopes to use its advertising budget to promote new policies brought in under the NDP government. This includes expanded Workers Compensation Board to account for cancers and other health issues firefighters face as a result of their work.

"Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation," MacDonald said. "There are a number of factors we face in the job and we certainly can't make those decisions before we go into a call."

MacDonald points to new legislation, passed under the NDP, that now allows female-specific cancers to be covered under WCB. It has also made enhancements to supports for PTSD and other mental-health injuries, he said.

Other players

While unions and private business are the largest donors under new third-party advertising rules, there are exceptions.

Merit Contractors Association, which represents non-union construction workers, has just over $150,000.

And if all this advertising noise is too much, a group called Alberta Fights Back, has an option. It is spending $6,861.05 to, among other things, promote talk of Alberta separating from Canada.

About the Author

Emily Senger is a journalist with CBC Edmonton.