N.B. Proud rejects claims it violated campaign-spending laws
Online group posted anti-Liberal Facebook ads, sent text messages during 2018 provincial election
An online group responsible for anti-Liberal advertising and text messages in the last provincial election says it didn't violate any campaign-spending laws.
Connor MacDonald, who runs the New Brunswick group, is rejecting claims by the Liberals that the group co-ordinated its message with the Progressive Conservative campaign — something that would be illegal.
"We were always registered to do business in New Brunswick and we adhere to all the the relevant laws and statutes on these sorts of questions," MacDonald said in a telephone interview from the United Kingdom, where he's attending university.
But he couldn't respond in detail to another issue raised by the Liberals: that the group began spending money last Aug. 27 despite only officially registering with Elections New Brunswick on Sept. 14.
"I don't have that information in front of me, but I do know that we continuously adhere to all the relevant regulations and statutes," he said.
Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee raised the issue in the legislature last week, accusing the PC party under Blaine Higgs of co-ordinating with the group.
The Political Process Financing Act says an outside group and a political party can't "collude" with each other to avoid restrictions under the act.
New Brunswick Proud posted anti-Liberal Facebook ads during last year's provincial election and also sent text messages from a fictitious person named "Pam" to the smart phones of thousands of voters.
McKee told the legislature that someone from New Brunswick Proud "actively campaigned with the PCs in the last election" and said the group's funding from outside the province represented "a threat to our democratic institutions here in New Brunswick.
"We do not think that it is right that parties from outside the province are able to exert so much influence here in New Brunswick," he said.
MacDonald confirmed that he was involved in the Higgs campaign last year.
But he said he was not co-ordinating with New Brunswick Proud at the time. He said he only got involved with the group in March.
"I had not heard of New Brunswick Proud at all until February 2019," he said, though he later qualified that to say he wasn't aware of it "aside from one or two random conversations about noticing things on social media."
MacDonald referred detailed questions about the group's activities to its former chief financial officer, Heidi McKillop. She said last week she wouldn't comment because she's no longer involved with the organization.
McKee said Monday the Liberals will likely ask Elections New Brunswick to investigate the Proud group's actions, including whether MacDonald is telling the truth.
"That would be his word, and that would be something for Elections New Brunswick to investigate further," he said.
Two large donations to New Brunswick Proud went through two Saint John law firms with PC ties. One was listed in care of Nic Ouellette, a former executive assistant to Higgs.
The other was listed in care of Lawson Creamer, the firm where former PC leadership candidate Mel Norton is a partner.
"We don't usually discuss our donors," MacDonald said. "I'm not gonna give any too much more information on that front. But as far as I know, we contract out to [those firms] too for legal purposes only."
Ouellette and Norton have not responded to requests for comments from CBC News.
The donations were $5,000 from the Modern Miracle Network, a pro-oil lobby group, and $7,000 from the Manning Foundation, a conservative think-tank. While there's a $3,000 limit on donations to political parties, there's no such limit for donations to the third-party groups.
Asked why the two groups wanted to fund New Brunswick election advertising, MacDonald said it's in keeping with the group's conservative orientation.
He said oil and gas "seems to be a big issue" that has come up in several New Brunswick campaigns.
"It's been a live political issue now since at least 2010 and so obviously that's a big part of our efforts," he said.
Adding transparency requirements?
McKee introduced a bill last Friday, the last day before the legislature's summer break, to add new transparency requirements for the third-party groups.
Outside, third-party groups that spend more than $500 during a campaign period must register with Elections New Brunswick and disclose their spending and any donations of more than $100.
New Brunswick Proud's efforts have been replicated in other provincial campaigns, and other outside groups have also run advertising aimed at Conservatives.
A group called Engage Canada has recently launched TV ads criticizing federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
Nineteen outside groups registered to run third-party advertising during last year's New Brunswick election.
Higgs considers restrictions to outside groups
Higgs said in the legislature last week that he did not know anything about New Brunswick Proud and their role in last year's campaign. "I think that I have heard the name before, but that's it," he said.
The premier later told reporters that he would consider new restrictions on the outside groups to prevent wealthy donors from being able to influence elections. "That's not democracy," he said.
MacDonald called the groups "a legitimate way for citizens from across the political spectrum to express their views democratically" and said New Brunswick Proud would not get involved in the debate over new restrictions.
"New Brunswick Proud's view is that we're content with the limits that they stand at the moment and we adhere to all of the limits that are in place and we have no plans for a campaign to change that in any way shape or form," he said.
The group spent a total of $14,271 during the campaign period on Facebook advertising and the text messages to voters, according to their public return.
While the group spent some money before its official registration on Sept. 14, Elections New Brunswick spokesperson Paul Harpelle said the agency has in the past treated a mid-campaign registration as covering the entire election period.