CANADA

Outside agitators

Special-interest groups join the battle

MARC CLARK November 7 1988
CANADA

Outside agitators

Special-interest groups join the battle

MARC CLARK November 7 1988

Outside agitators

CANADA

Special-interest groups join the battle

The floodgates opened days before the 1984 federal election campaign: the right-wing National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC) spent $300,000 on a court challenge of the federal election law that prohibited the use of the media by interest groups and individuals to support or challenge candidates during a campaign. On June 26, 1984, Mr. Justice Donald Medhurst of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that the law was “a restriction on freedom of expression” and invalid. Chief electoral officer Jean-Marc Hamel did not appeal the judgment, and the decision applied equally in all provinces. The NCC went on to spend about $100,000 that year on advertising attacking the New Democrats. But the full impact of Medhurst’s ruling, and Hamel’s agreement, did not register for another four years— until the current federal election campaign.

Several groups not covered by spending restrictions on political parties have been pouring millions of dollars into issue-oriented advertising, which commissioner of Canada Elections George Allen says is sometimes clearly partisan. The NCC, for one, has continued its anti-NDP campaign. Still, even some left-wing opponents of the NCC applaud its 1984 court initiative. Said Robert Penner, spokesman for the Canadian Peace Pledge Campaign: “The electoral process does not belong solely to the political parties. We have important issues to discuss, too.”

The Peace Pledge Campaign, a coalition of peace groups, is one of the organizations that will contribute an estimated $4 million worth of radio and TV ads, newspaper inserts and pamphlets to this year’s political advertising blizzard. Those groups run the breadth of the political spectrum, from promoters of free trade to critics of nuclear submarines. And the outsiders can advertise anytime, while the parties themselves could not begin until 29 days before the vote. The outsiders’ newfound influence—and their advantages over the parties—clearly makes some politicians nervous. And NCC president David Somerville, 38, said that they have every reason to be. “The parties have had their stranglehold broken on the political process,” he declared.

During the campaign, the NCC has continued to outrage New Democrats by sponsoring a $575,000 radio, television, newspaper and direct-mail campaign in NDP strongholds in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba— and in NDP Leader Edward Broadbent’s Oshawa, Ont., riding. But the Peace Pledge Campaign will spend up to $300,000 attacking the Tories for their defence policies and supporting the NDP in about 20 ridings. And at the same time, a coalition of postal unions has announced a $500,000 plan to distribute two million leaflets in 49 Tory-held ridings, decrying Conservative initiatives to privatize postal services and to replace home mail delivery in new suburbs with so-called superboxes.

The issue that has sparked the greatest spending is free trade. The Pro-Canada Network, an affiliation of unions, church groups and other organizations opposed to the deal, has already spent $610,000 to print and distribute 2.2 million 24-page booklets that scathingly denounce the agreement. With further orders of the booklet expected by the network—and with a French translation on the way—the group expects to spend close to $1 million. In response, the opposing Canadian Alliance for Free Trade and Job Opportunities plans to circulate six million advertisements in newspapers nationwide at an estimated cost of up to $1.5 million.

The outside advertising has raised a number of other difficult issues. Politicians from the three main federal parties say that unlimited spending by outside groups contradicts the spirit of current laws that attempt to control campaign spending. Robin Sears, deputy director of the NDP campaign, raised the possibility of Canadian politics being subject to the kind of political action committees that have become extremely influential lobby groups in the United States. “We do not want a style of politics where there is more money spent outside the system than within,” Sears said. But, he added: “You can’t forbid people to comment on public policy. It is a dilemma.”

Still, the line between support of an issue and support of a party is easily blurred. Commissioner Allen said that support for free trade, for one, is tantamount to support for the Conservatives. Said Allen: “I am not sure what a judge would say, but our view is that free trade is such a central issue of the campaign and so identified with one party that you can’t support it without promoting the party.”

Meanwhile, provincial Tories can effectively publicize the federal Tory message while bypassing the federal party’s election expenses limits. Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine used part of his riding advertising budget to run a series of pro-free-trade radio ads in his constituency early in the campaign. Allen said that he had asked the three federal parties for help in dissuading their provincial colleagues from advertising about federal issues. But Yuri Kovar, director of communications for the Tories, said that if provincial Conservatives want to run ads extolling free trade, “that’s their business.

Politicians from all three parties said that Canada’s next Parliament will have to confront the problem of outside advertising. But it promises to be a prickly subject. Said Ronald Gould, assistant chief electoral officer: “I have been watching people debate this from every angle and I have yet to hear someone come forward with a solution.” For Parliament, the challenge will be to find a way to limit spending—without limiting freedom of speech.

MARC CLARK in Ottawa