Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosts Iftar dinner at 24 Sussex Drive to mark Ramadan

B.C. still the Wild West for elections

"HarperPAC" brings horror stories of "dark money" invading Canadian politics. It's not new, it's also known as free speech

VICTORIA – The man behind “HarperPAC” says it lived and died in a few days to make a point about third-party advertising in Canadian politics.

When it launched, I wondered why he would choose such a deliberately provocative name. No, not “Harper,” but the acronym for “Political Action Committee,” which has come to symbolize the financial excesses of U.S. politics.

HarperPAC ran one radio ad, accusing Liberal leader Justin Trudeau of blaming voters for his declining popularity, and suggesting that Trudeau’s “months of mistakes” are a likelier cause. No kidding.

HarperPAC spokesman Stephen Taylor, who like Stephen Harper before him has worked for the National Citizens’ Coalition, announced the end of the project last week.

“We have contributed to a new discussion about political financing in a fixed election era that is critical to our democracy,” Taylor said. “We note that this discussion only occurred once a right-wing analog of the left’s PAC-style efforts emerged on the scene.”

Indeed, it was when HarperPAC emerged that muttering began about “dark money” in Canadian politics. Unifor, Anti-Conservative front LeadNow and the many faces of the Tides Foundation somehow failed to ignite much discussion in the Canadian media.

Taylor launched the bid in response to the emergence of “Engage Canada,” a union-financed action committee that he said was part of a broader effort by the left to oust the Conservatives. Engage Canada portrays itself as a brave alternative to shadowy right-wing groups such as Working Canadians, which has also run pro-Conservative ads.

Engage Canada’s latest ad plays on the union movement’s cherished “inequality” theme, selecting statistics to portray the wealthy as making out far better than the rest of us in Harper’s Canada. (The notion that “inequality” can and should be fixed by ever-higher taxes on “the rich” staggers on, zombie-like, as if capitalism was the cause of poverty.)

Two recent developments have led to all this. Scheduled elections every four years have finally taken effect at the federal level, after a series of minority governments. And courts have repeatedly struck down efforts to restrict third-party spending in the so-called “pre-campaign” period as an unwarranted restriction on free speech.

The B.C. Liberal government tried and failed several times to restrict third party spending, largely in response to the million-dollar tirades of the teachers’ union. Former attorney general Wally Oppal used to warn about American-style influence by wealthy interest groups targeting scheduled elections.

Their strategy was not so much to keep corporate money out of B.C. politics as to keep it flowing through the B.C. Liberal Party.

This spring the B.C. Liberal majority passed Bill 20, the Election Amendment Act. Not only did this recognize the freedom of outsiders to weigh in on elections, it also did away with pre-campaign restrictions on registered political parties and candidates.

NDP MLA Leonard Krog warned that this sets the stage for “some mad Wild West show,” with politicians so desperate to raise money they start looking for the B.C. equivalent of renting out the Lincoln bedroom in the White House.

The big difference between the pre-campaign ads for this fall’s federal election and the next provincial vote in 2017 is that corporate and union donations to parties and candidates have been eliminated at the federal level. That means more money available for third-party campaigns, but it seems to be fairly well distributed between the two sides, the Conservatives and everybody else.

Here in the Wild West, nothing’s going to change as long as the B.C. Liberals are in the saddle.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc


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