As an election looms, special-interest groups face new scrutiny
BRIAN BERGMAN,LUKE FISHER,GLEN ALLENAugust301993
The third-party syndrome
As an election looms, special-interest groups face new scrutiny
Like several other advocacy groups, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) recently published a voters’ guide to the coming federal election. The 132-page booklet urges women to seek out candidates who, among other things, support the decriminalization of prostitution, the creation of a state-supported universal child care system and the abolition of the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement—which, the committee charges, “furthers the feminization of poverty.” Although each of those points is consistent with the organization’s long-standing policies, such sweeping calls for reform are unlikely to find favor with the majority of Canadian voters. “These groups are prisoners of their own ideology,” says Michael Adams, a Toronto-based pollster who is critical of the role played by special-interest groups like the NAC. ‘They were created out of the idealism of the 1960s, funded by the government activism of the 1970s, sustained by the inertia of the 1980 and are ever more anachronistic.”
Anachronistic or not, special-interest groups appear likely to play a much smaller role in this year’s election than they did in 1988, when supporters and opponents of free trade spent millions trying to convince Canadians of the wisdom of their position. So far, at least, no such overarching issue has emerged to capture the attention of voters. And with the economy still weak, many Canadians are too busy worrying about the security of their jobs to pay much heed to the demands of advocacy groups for farreaching social and economic reforms. “The middle class is generally feeling beleaguered, overtaxed, under-serviced,” says Adams, president of the Toronto-based Environics Research Group Ltd. ‘They are much less concerned about redressing historical grievances than about the pocketbook issues that affect their own lives.” Adds Thomas d’Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues: “Because Canadians have gone through some very tough times, they are going to look much more carefully at what people are saying before casting their ballots.”
Despite the challenges, a staggering array of special-interest groups—many of them funded to a large extent by taxpayers—are gearing up for the election call. The National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO), based in Ottawa but representing 110 member groups across Canada, is organizing a midSeptember conference on social issues in co-operation with the NAC and the Canadian Labour Congress. The NAPO, which receives $250,000 of its $400,000 annual budget from Ottawa, wants to emphasize its support for the principle of universality, and will urge federal politicians to refrain from transferring responsibility for national social programs to the provinces. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which counts on the federal government for most of its annual $8-million budget, was also discussing election strategy last week. The 633 chiefs who belong to the AFN intend to press candidates on a number of native issues, including land
claims and the right to self-government. And in addition to publishing its voters’ guide, the NAC, which counts on Ottawa for onefourth of its annual $l-million budget, is trying to organize a leaders’ debate on women’s issues.
As well as the traditional special-interest groups—which run the gamut from environmentalists to senior citizens to small and large business organizations—some relative newcomers are endeavoring to flex their political muscles this fall. Denis LeBlanc, president of a gay rights group, Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere, held a news conference in Ottawa last week to urge gay, lesbian and bisexual voters to cast ballots for candidates who support enshrining gay rights in the law. LeBlanc said that there are about two million homosexuals across Canada, adding that they have the potential to influence the outcome in 30 urban ridings. That includes Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s riding of Vancouver Centre, which is believed to have the highest concentration of gays and lesbians of any constituency in the country. “We feel we’ve been ignored long enough,” LeBlanc complained.
As with the other key players in a political campaign, money is the lifeblood of most advocacy groups. The dollars that they raise, from both private and public sources, are used to purchase media ads promoting their views. Lollowing the blizzard of special-interest advertising during the 1988 federal campaign, all three major federal parties attempted to impose a limit on such interventions. After a mere 15 minutes of debate on April 2, the House of Commons passed an amendment to the Canada Elections Act making it an offence for any individual or group—other than a political party—to purchase more than $1,000 worth of advertising during a campaign. The penalty for violating the act: up to five years in prison.
The legislation was immediately challenged by the Toronto-based National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC), which had spent $850,000 during the 1988 campaign to promote free trade and attack the NDP. In late June, Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Donald MacLeod struck down the amendments as unenforceable and unconstitutional. While the federal government is appealing that ruling, Canada’s chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, said last week that special-interest groups will be free to spend as much as they wish in the coming campaign. NCC president David Somerville, meanwhile, told Maclean s that his group intends to take out ads denouncing MPs who supported what he calls the “gag law.” Said Somerville, whose group is financed by donations from its 40,000 members: “I think it shows that they have no love or understanding for some of our fundamental freedoms.”
Although Somerville defends the right of special-interest groups to spend as they see fit, his group has urged Ottawa to stop giving money to advocacy groups. Campbell adopted a similar stance, if only fleetingly, during the Tory leadership race. To loud applause from delegates at the party’s convention in June, Campbell declared that “I don’t think we should fund advocacy groups at all.” However, within minutes of her pronouncement, and under questioning by reporters, Campbell backed off from that position. Would she cut off funding for the Assembly of Lirst Nations? No, she replied, because the AFN provides services to natives in addition to lobbying politicians. What about the
NAC? No, and for similar reasons. Was there any group that she would cut off? None that she was prepared to name. Campbell has not raised the issue since.
Neither of the other two mainstream national parties have shown much enthusiasm for taking on special-interest groups. Chaviva Hosek, senior policy adviser to Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, and herself a former NAC president, told Maclean’s last week that the Liberals do not have a policy on which interest groups should receive funding. NDP MP John Rodriguez was similarly vague, although he said that he and his colleagues believe that “public-interest groups have something to contribute to the decision-making process.” By contrast, Reform party Leader Preston Manning advocates the elimination of all government subsidies to special-interest groups—a measure he insists would save the federal treasury as much as $500 million annually. “We’ve got nothing against these groups,” Manning says. “We just think they should get their money from the people they purport to represent, rather than the public purse.”
According to Manning, Canadians themselves are increasingly skeptical about the role of interest groups. He recalls that during the negotiations that led to last year’s Charlottetown constitutional accord, a wide variety of advocacy groups pleaded their cases before a travelling parliamentary committee. “The voice of the average citizen was drowned out,” he says. “I think that adds to the resentment about these groups—especially when some of them were trying to get their interests entrenched in the Constitution.” At the same time, Manning, who campaigned on the No side during the referendum, argues that defeat of the Charlottetown accord gave ordinary Canadians a renewed sense of confidence. Noting that the Yes forces— funded mainly by corporations and specialinterest groups representing business— spent $11.8 million, compared with $860,000 for the No side, Manning says that “the public learned that you can compete against these guys and beat them.”
Others draw different lessons from last fall’s referendum. Rosemarie Kuptana, president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, was an active participant throughout the constitutional hearings, and campaigned on the Yes side during the referendum. She maintains that the accord’s rejection does not mean that Canadians are any less sympathetic to the concerns of groups such as her own, which represents 36,000 Inuit in Canada and depends on Ottawa for its entire $400,000 budget. She adds that the referendum gave her group valuable political experience as it prepares to fight for natives in the election. Says Kuptana: “I now have an intimate understanding of how things work.”
Adams, however, questions whether Canadians are really in the mood to listen to special-interest groups—even those that advocate the most reasonable of causes. “These groups are not going to be thanked for their interventions,” Adams says. “Canadians are going to make up their own minds. They will be looking for third parties that don’t have a vested interest.” And these days, critics say, such groups are in short supply.
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