Toronto

Union-backed group fights Ontario rules limiting spending on election advertising

A union-backed organization that has spent millions on attack ads targeting Ontario's Progressive Conservatives during past election campaigns is fighting a Liberal law that limits how much third parties can spend on election advertising.

The Working Families group says law infringes on its rights to free expression and free association

Third parties who spent millions of dollars during the past election on attack ads against Patrick Brown and Ontario's Progressive Conservatives are now facing a spending limit. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

A union-backed organization that has spent millions on attack ads targeting Ontario's Progressive Conservatives during past election campaigns is fighting a Liberal law that limits how much third parties can spend on election advertising.

The Working Families group has filed a constitutional challenge against Bill 2, alleging the provincial law that took effect last year infringes on its rights to free expression and free association.

The group -- whose work is sponsored by trade unions such as Unifor, the Ontario Nurses' Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation -- said the law effectively restricts how organizations and individuals can participate in the election process and bring issues before the public.

"Election time is about the people having their say, not about the politicians having their say," spokesman Patrick Dillon said in an interview on Tuesday.

Under the law, both political parties and the special interest groups known as third parties now have caps on how much they can spend on political advertising during Ontario election campaigns and in the six months leading up to them.

It's the first time third parties, who have exerted considerable influence in past elections, have spending limits in the province.

They are now limited to spending $600,000 on advertising in the six months before the campaign and $100,000 during it.

Political parties are restricted to $1 million in the six-month pre-election period.

Not counting the 2014 provincial election, which was not a fixed date election, Working Families has spent between $1.2 million and $1.6 million on political advertising during the six-month stretch before an election campaign, the group said.

And it has spent between $2.35 million and $2.5 million on ads during the campaign in the last three provincial elections, it said.

A spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General said the government believes the advertising spending rules comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Rules 'level the playing field,' government says 

"The government's objectives regarding pre-writ third party advertising rules were to level the playing field in election
contests that now arise in a fixed election date environment, well in advance of formal election campaigns," the spokesman said, noting that the rules also aim to ensure debate on key issues is not "unduly stifled."

In its application to the court, Working Families said it wants the provisions related to third-party spending struck down. Dillon said the group would like a return to the previous system, which did not cap spending for third parties.

He acknowledged it may seem ironic to wage a legal battle against the Liberals over the right to run ads that have typically benefited the party, but said the group is more focused on policies than politicians.

Part of the concern for Working Families, he said, is that any messages on issues such as minimum wage or the upcoming provincial budget will be labelled political advertising and the money spent will count towards the limit.

 "This is not even talking about the election process itself, just talking about the budget," he said. "Because if a political party happens to take the same position as we do, we could be seen by Elections Ontario to be part of a campaign with that political party because it's in the six-month period prior to the election."

No date has yet been set for the court to hear the group's application and it's unclear whether the matter can be resolved
before the provincial election, which must take place no later than June 7.

Dillon said the group is aware of that risk. "We're more concerned about the big picture than the short term," he said.