Starting Sunday, Canadians will begin to see which third-party groups will be spending money to sway their votes in the upcoming federal election.
As of June 30, groups that aren’t political parties but want a say in the fall campaign will need to register with Elections Canada if they spend more than $500 on political activities, and file interim disclosure forms once they raise or spend more than $10,000.
Groups such as Engage Canada and Shaping Canada’s Future stole the spotlight earlier this month with duelling ads during the NBA Finals (Engage Canada attacked the Conservatives; Shaping Canada’s Future went after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau), while groups such as Canada Proud will likely be spending big in the coming months.
But more than half the more than $6 million directly spent on electioneering by third parties in the 2015 election was shelled out by the top 10 organizations, most of which are unions.
Those tallies are just for the 78-day election period in 2015. Now, new rules on advertising disclosure will show how much groups are spending in the months before the campaign officially begins.
Bill C-76, the election-reform law passed by Parliament in December, sets limits for third parties of just over $1 million in the “pre-writ period,” and about $500,000 in the election period. In any given electoral district though, those limits are $10,000 and $5,000.
At least one union group will be trying to reach that limit, and has already spent on ads prior to the start of the pre-election period.
“We’re all in,” said Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union.
“We’re entitled to spend $511,000 in the writ period — we’re going to spend $511,000” he added. “There is no question, we will be very aggressive.”
An outspoken critic of conservative politicians both federally and provincially, Dias said his focus will be on supporting Liberal or NDP candidates and incumbents in winnable ridings.
Dias said Unifor will put more emphasis than ever on social-media spending. Digital advertising on platforms like Facebook and Twitter has, he said, greater reach than traditional means.
But for some of 2015’s top spenders, the mood is more cautious.
“We will be registering for the pre-writ period, and the post-writ period,” said Riccardo Filippone, director of communications at the Public Service Alliance of Canada, but said his union’s final amount of advertising spending isn’t certain.
Filippone said the overall priority will be reminding members of the union, which is the biggest representing federal employees, why PSAC thinks they should oppose Conservative candidates.
The exact tone of the messaging hadn’t yet been worked out, Filippone added, “but it won’t be gentle.”
The United Steelworkers Union, which was the top direct spender in the last election with over $430,000 worth of advertising activities, has not yet committed itself to any spending.
“One has to think about whether or not spending money on ad buys in media in July and August is money well spent,” said Mark Rowlinson, assistant to the union’s national director. The union’s elected leadership needs to approve a plan, he said, and that hasn’t happened yet.
If the decision is made to run ads over the summer and into the writ period, he added, the spending needs to be carefully targeted so as not to exceed the prescribed limits, while still providing value.
The limits on spending in any given electoral district were particularly notable, Rowlinson said, because it made buying ads in urban centres difficult.
Daniel Bernhard, executive director of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an advocate for public broadcasting, said his organization will also wait to make major decisions.
“We will be running some print ads, probably next week, to get the ball rolling,” he said. “And then we’ll see what happens in the summer and fall.”
But, he added, the group is already out and active in 22 swing ridings.
Bernhard also argued any conversation about third-party advertising in Canada needs to acknowledge the roles of platforms like Facebook and Twitter in allowing for “nefarious activity” and enabling groups to skirt limits or act anonymously, he said.
He likened the dynamic to the relationship between the tax system in Canada and the offshore tax industry.
Facebook has rolled out an ad library to meet the transparency requirements of Bill C-76, so people can see where political advertisements come from and how they’re targeted. Twitter is temporarily banning political ads on its platform in Canada as it builds its own tracking tool.
But those actions weren’t enough for Bernhard.
“All this talk of limits is almost a sideshow,” he said. “The people who are already reporting and complying with the limits are the least of our problems.”
Here are the top 10 third party spenders from 2015, and what they spent money on:
10. Canadian Union of Postal Workers — $208,572.46
The postal-workers’ union spent big in dozens of ridings across the country in 2015, with most of those dollars going to election merchandise like buttons and signs. Also, almost $7,000 went to wrapping an RV in a “Save Canada Post” ad during the writ period.
9. Canadian Media Guild — $237,032.61
The union representing workers at many of Canada’s major news agencies (including The Canadian Press) used its cash to produce lawn signs and buy ads in The Globe and Mail and on Facebook in a campaign to support the CBC.
8. British Columbia Nurses’ Union — $256,871.81
The nurses’ union launched a series of online media ads and newspaper advertising late in the campaign.
7. Unifor — $299,901.77
The bulk of direct spending from Canada’s largest private-sector union was in the form of newspaper and radio ads in major cities, particularly in Ontario. Notably, the group ran ads in Punjabi.
6. Canadian Labour Congress — $306,518.02
The national labour group did spent on newspaper ads, but differs from most of the other top spenders because of the proportion of its expenses that went to on-the-ground canvassing, as well as its emphasis on non-English language media.
5. Friends of Canadian Broadcasting — $332,687.11
The group advocates for a more vibrant public broadcaster, and did so last election through a series of TV ads and print advertisements in The Globe and Mail, as well as classic campaign materials like lawn signs and stickers.
4. Public Service Alliance of Canada — $390,236.50
The biggest union representing federal workers, PSAC ran a series of anti-Harper ads in 2015, with a focus on buses and bus shelters, as well as more standard online newspaper and print advertising.
3. Canadians United for Change — $425,462.08
Funded by Canadian units of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Canadians United for Change ran big national anti-Harper ad campaigns.
2. Let’s Build Canada — $428,974.88
The coalition of construction unions spent enormous sums on print and online newspaper advertising, mostly in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg, along with posters in those areas. Notably, many of those ad dollars went to posts on The Weather Network’s website.
1. United Steelworkers – $431,639.74
The avowedly pro-NDP union spent most of its money in 2015 on radio, print and online ads in some of its key bases of support — London, Hamilton and Sudbury, as well as cities in south-central B.C.
Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press