Politics·Analysis

HarperPAC, Engage Canada highlight confusion over 3rd-party ads

The Conservatives are crying foul over ads by a third-party group backed by former Liberal and NDP strategists, while triggering the closure of a pro-Conservative group it says created confusion for its supporters. Confusion, indeed.

Conservatives cry foul, 1 group calls it quits and there are many questions about 3rd-party ads

Conservative Party spokesman Kory Teneycke says a pro-Harper third-party that shut down this week risked confusing his party's supporters, while another group that opposes his party is violating election laws. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservative Party wants federal elections officials to investigate whether third-party groups, including one started by former Liberal and NDP strategists, are violating the law by posting attack ads against his party that can be seen in three Ontario ridings where byelections are underway.

Party spokesman Kory Teneycke told CBC News that the party raised its concerns with the commissioner of elections a few weeks ago, about the time Engage Canada began running ads opposed to the Harper government.

"The Fair Elections Act has restrictions on what third party groups can do during those byelection periods," Teneycke said in an interview airing Saturday with CBC Radio's The House.

"I think it's a question as to whether the activities of Engage Canada and some of these other groups who are operating right now are in violation of those rules.''

Engage Canada's 'Neglect' TV spot that takes aim at the Conservative government. The third-party group has said little about its founders and donors. (Youtube.com)

A spokesman for the elections commissioner would not confirm whether a complaint had been filed, or if any investigation is being done.

The government called byelections this spring to replace MPs who resigned in Sudbury, Ottawa West-Nepean and Peterborough. The vote is set for Oct. 19, the same day as the fixed date for the federal election.

"It is a concern to us that the rules are followed, that they're fair and transparent. And that's true of third-party spending," Teneycke said.

Under federal election law third parties must register with Elections Canada if they spend more than $500 in advertising expenses in relation to an election. Those rules also apply to byelections where candidates have been nominated, and if the advertising promotes a specific candidate or party.

According to Elections Canada, the Liberals are the only party to have nominated candidates in two of the byelection ridings: Peterborough and Sudbury.

Engage Canada says it has already received an advisory opinion from Elections Canada that the restrictions only apply if the party being targeted has candidates nominated for the byelection. Elections Canada would not directly address questions about the Conservatives' complaint.

HarperPAC left 'wrong impression'

The Conservative complaint is the latest twist in a tumultuous week in which the actions of third parties, or political action committees as they are commonly known in the United States, came under intense media scrutiny.

On Thursday a pro-Conservative group calling itself HarperPAC abruptly ceased its activities and returned donations after Teneycke made public his concerns that the group's activities would confuse voters.

"If an organization wants to establish itself and raise money and run ads they should be very clear who they are and who they aren't," Teneycke said. "In this case, they are not the prime minister or the Conservative Party campaign. Therefore calling it HarperPAC leaves people with the wrong impression.''

But University of Ottawa law professor Michael Pal, an expert on Canadian election laws, says the timing may have had more to do with the widely-broadcast image of former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro being led away in handcuffs on Thursday for violating election spending laws.

The Conservatives say pictures of former Tory MP Dean Del Mastro in handcuffs after sentencing on elections charges had nothing to do with the timing of their concerns over a pro-Harper third-party group. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

It seems logical that they would have been sensitive about that given the timing of Del Mastro's sentencing, Pal said.

Teneycke insists the timing was coincidental.

"Just because there's a similarity in timing doesn't mean there's a correlation between the two things.''

Another concern is that HarperPAC was accepting donations from corporations, which are prohibited from making donations during an actual campaign under rules brought in by the Conservatives.

Loopholes remain

Engage Canada, which is financially backed by unions such as Unifor, is not disclosing the amounts it has raised, or the identities of its donors — requirements it would have to meet once the writ is dropped.

Sources tell CBC News the group isn't registered with Elections Canada and doesn't intend to.

Pal says that's another loophole.

He also expects HarperPAC will be replaced by another pro-Conservative group with a less obvious name. And he warns PACs will continue to grow in number and influence unless the law is changed, and unless they are forced to divulge who's financing their activities outside the formal campaign.

HarperPAC, a conservative third-party group, announced it was shutting down less than a week after its launch. (CBC)

"What needs to happen is that the media needs to press Engage Canada and the other groups who are still active, about who their donors are. How much they've donated and how much they're going to spend, and to push them to sign an undertaking to say they are not connected to political parties officially in any way."

In reality, third parties are not entirely new in Canada.

A group called Working Families, funded largely by unions, has been active in a number of Ontario provincial elections.

Pal says Working Families ran attack ads against the Conservatives and then-party leader Tim Hudak in the last two provincial elections and, "depending how effective you think negative ads are," may have swung the elections in the Liberals' favour.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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