Canadian Lobby Groups Plan A Big-Money Ad Blitz Before New Election Rules Kick In

Third parties in Canada can spend unlimited money on political ads before June 30.

Canadian political parties and lobby groups are expected to spend millions on advertising over the next month in a big-money push for their political causes before new spending limits kick in.

Canada Proud, a national spinoff of the conservative Ontario Proud group, has spent “well over” six figures on advertising so far and has “big plans” for June, founder Jeff Ballingall told the Star and BuzzFeed News.

“Some of our larger donors are coming on board, and we’re doing some fun things in June,” said Ballingall, adding that Canada Proud’s goal is to help defeat Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.

“We’re spending, we’re advertising a lot on Facebook right now, doing a lot on YouTube,” he said. “We’re reaching millions of people every week.”

Ballingall’s efforts will be countered on the left by Engage Canada, which launched a television and digital ad campaign targeting Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Monday.

Engage Canada is a union-backed progressive coalition that has been associated with both Liberal and New Democrat strategists. It is painting Scheer as a “yes-man” for the wealthy who will cut public services, and its campaign ties Scheer to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose popularity has plummeted in recent months.

“The Conservatives have made a strategic error in not defining Andrew Scheer, and we think now is a good time to remind them who Conservatives are and tell them who Andrew Scheer is,” said Engage Canada spokesperson Tabitha Bernard.

The timing of the two campaigns is no coincidence.

New elections laws put limits on third-party political operations in the months before an election — what the Liberal government calls the “pre-writ” period. On June 30, groups like Canada Proud and Engage Canada will be subject to strict spending limits on partisan activity, advertising and election survey expenses.

Until June 30, however, it’s largely a free for all.

All the new rules do “is manage when the groups are going to spend and in some ways how the groups are going to spend. It doesn’t change the fact that third parties are playing an increasing role in Canadian politics,” said Michael Pal, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“The third parties are playing catch-up to the parties. Now we are seeing them adopting their own strategies and not only doing political advertising. They’re doing organizing work of various other kinds.”

Third parties’ election activities have long been a concern for conservative activists in Canada, who have frequently accusing labour organizations and unions of using their considerable resources to push for progressive candidates and parties.

Last week, Scheer took issue with Unifor — Canada’s largest private sector union — being invited to submit a candidate for the panel deciding which media organizations are eligible for nearly $600 million in funding from the federal government. Unifor has vowed to “resist” the Conservatives’ election agenda.

In the House of Commons Monday, Scheer called on the government to remove Unifor, whose members include unionized workers at the Toronto Star, from the panel.

“None of the challenges facing the news industry justifies putting an openly partisan group on the panel to determine who gets funding,” Scheer said.

“Unifor has published tweets calling itself the ‘resistance’ to Conservatives. It’s bankrolling partisan attack ads put out by third-party groups.”

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez accused Scheer of playing a “dangerous game.”

“The Conservatives are saying that journalists can be bought in our country and we strongly disagree,” Rodriguez said.

The Conservatives, who have long out-fundraised their main rivals, already have a round of election ads in heavy rotation on television and radio stations. Brock Harrison, a spokesperson for Scheer, described the campaign to Global News as a “multimillion-dollar ad buy.”

The governing Liberals have also launched a series of radio ads on climate change, accusing the Conservatives of wanting “to go back to the Harper years when pollution was free” — a reference to the Conservatives’ opposition to the federal carbon levy.

BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.