Email signup:

Newsroom

Third-Party Ads Distort Democracy

(Queen's Park Report - January 20, 2012) Big money is transforming politics in Ontario, and if it is not addressed, the province will forever be dominated by the influence of wealthy interests who are so well-heeled that they can easily distort democracy.

The issue is third-party advertising. Ontario has virtually no restrictions on it. Political Action Committees, known as "Super PACs" in the United States, are untouched by donation limits and spending caps which political parties and their candidates must follow to ensure fair elections.

By law, candidates in Ontario elections cannot accept a donation greater than $1,240 or spend more than $1.19 per voter during the campaign on items that are subject to a limit, such as advertising. Likewise, the central political apparatus that organizes and supports the campaigns of party leaders cannot receive donations greater than $9,300 or spend more than $0.74 per voter. This is how the law ensures fair elections, but unfortunately there is a way around it.

To skirt these rules, the PAC known as the Working Families Coalition was created by Ontario's big labour unions. Establishing this third-party shell allowed the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation to exceed the $9,300 donation limit in support of the Ontario Liberal Party, and contribute an additional $100,000 on the side to support Dalton McGuinty's 2007 election win.

In total, 16 unions got together in that election and made individual donations as high as $400,000 to spend nearly $1.5 million to flood the airwaves and run an aggressive attack crusade against the Progressive Conservative Party during the campaign period.  

These figures don't include ads they ran outside of the election period as you are only required to publicly report what you spent around the time of the formal campaign.  To make matters worse, you don't even have to make financial disclosures until six months after voters have already voted.

This practice mirrors what is happening right now with the Republican primaries in the United States. Like Ontario, "Super PACs" in the United States are funded by largely secret donors and are said to be outspending the candidates running for the presidential nomination. Some are saying that an unprecedented $7 billion could be spent this year in the campaigns for the White House and congressional elections because there are no restrictions on third-party advertising.

Forming a PAC compliments a party's campaign ads. Just like in the United States, in the 2011 Ontario campaign, Dalton McGuinty had his Working Families PAC ran attack ads that aired just before his warm and fuzzy campaign ads. The strategy is obvious - farm out the dirty work to a third-party who is unknown and unaccountable and is flush with cash so that Mr. McGuinty comes away looking like a furry kitten at no extra charge to his own financial war chest.

It is estimated that in the 2011 campaign there was four Liberal or Working Families ads for every one PC ad. While the political parties had binding expense limits, there was no such limits for the Liberal-aligned Working Families PAC, which we think spent as much as $9 million in the lead up and during the recent campaign.

In short, that means the Liberals were able to gather their rich allies to creatively spend $9 million more than the NDP, the PCs, or the Greens by directing big donations to the Working Families PAC.

This is a radical change from what we are used to in Ontario. It means those with deep pockets can distort the outcome of an election using big money. If you're rich or have rich friends, the sky is the limit. If you're not, welcome to the brick wall.

This must change. Unfortunately, nothing will until the McGuinty Liberals are out of office, since they are the benefactors. Until then, it's a scary road ahead. Big labour is the only group exploiting the loophole now, but who next? Will it be a multi-national conglomerate or an independently wealthy individual who wants to impose his or her views on the rest of us?

Whoever it is, it certainly destroys the gains made in the past to take the influence of money out of politics.

Ontario's Debt Clock