Imagine you are Hector Bremner, a Vancouver city councillor now running for mayor, with a campaign focused on the housing crisis. Your “density and supply will fix everything” proclivity makes you fodder for critics who claim it reveals your close ties to developers. You pooh-pooh those allegations, even though you work for a public relations company with big developer clients and were ditched by your old political party over potential conflict-of-interest concerns. You had forged ahead, formed a new party and ran anyway.
And then, miracle of miracles, a benevolent and well-financed group no one has ever heard of peppers the city with billboards featuring your photo and endorsing your party and housing plan, even before all the details are released. You might admire the photo, shot without your trademark dark-rimmed glasses and showing you, chin up, collar open, gazing out across your city. It looks, almost visionary. What luck!
And when pesky reporters ask who is behind the group, your team professes not to know (you yourself being uncharacteristically unavailable). When they press harder and ask how on earth this group got its mitts on that inspiring photo, your people again say no idea, maybe the internet.
Truth is, there is nothing illegal about anonymous third-party advertising at this stage in the campaign. Even though new provincial legislation caps donations to civic parties during election years, including a ban on corporate and union donations, third-party groups have free rein until the campaign period begins on Sept. 22.
Until then, these shadowy groups can spend to their heart’s content and keep the identity of their members secret. Once the campaign period begins, $150,000 spending limits kick in and third parties must register and provide a contact name for the group.
The NDP brain trust in Victoria has not explained why third parties are barred from advertising only in the last few weeks before a civic vote, but political parties are barred for almost nine months – from Jan. 1 to election day Oct. 20. During that time, parties are not allowed to accept money or spend donations from corporations or unions. They must rely on individual donations, which are limited to $1,200. Tough to buy a lot of billboard space on that kind of coin. If you are trying to get big money out of politics, why aren’t the rules the same for political parties and their proxies?
As for transparency for third-party groups, why isn’t it required all the time? Allowing groups to remain nameless has the potential to thwart rules limiting union and corporate donations. By law, there is nothing preventing them from forming a group with a motherhood name like Vancouverites for Affordable Housing (Mr. Bremner’s guardian angels) and dumping a ton of money into political campaigns. Some experienced political watchers estimate the amount dropped by the mystery group on outdoor billboards, train station ads and targeted social media advertising for Mr. Bremner at upward of $75,000.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs in a statement said it is concerned about the ad blitz for Mr. Bremner. “This case appears to be an attempt to spend as much money as possible on advertising a mere two weeks before the campaign period begins.” It blames the previous Liberal government, which crafted the third-party limits, for not doing enough to “take big money out of politics” and promised to review and improve the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act after the next election.
The blame seems misplaced: The NDP changed other aspects of the act and chose not to change this one.
So far, Mr. Bremner seems to be the only one willing to allow backers to flout the spirit of new election financing rules. None of the other parties or candidates are being so obviously propped up by third-party, shadow backers. But come Sept. 22, everyone, including Mr. Bremner, will be playing by the same rules. During the campaign, he will undoubtedly be pressed to find out who his backers are, if he doesn’t already know, and disclose them.
If, as Mr. Bremner claims, he is an honourable candidate, intent on changing old-school politics, that is exactly what he must do.