The former Alberta lawmaker who changed some of his province's electoral rules says Canada should be careful about allowing too much freedom to third-party political advertising in advance of elections.
"People know the difference between regular free speech and political speech, and when you're attacking a specific policy or political party and so forth, perhaps there should be some limitation in the amount of money that can be spent on that," said Rob Anderson, the former Progressive Conservative MLA whose private member's bill passed in 2009, introducing disclosure and spending rules for third parties during Alberta election campaigns.
Mr. Anderson also sat as a Wildrose MLA and now works as a lawyer in the Calgary area. "It's not democracy controlled by the highest bidder," he said.
Even as provinces such as Alberta and the federal government limit third-party advertising during election campaigns, the period before an official, federal campaign is unregulated as third parties can fundraise from private donors and spend unlimited amounts on advertising.
In an effort to influence voters before this fall's federal election, third parties Engage Canada and Working Canadians have been running attack ads on federal political leaders. The groups are benefiting from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's fixed-date election law, which has given them time to plan advertising campaigns before the writ drops.
Union-backed Engage Canada is running a multimillion-dollar campaign attacking Mr. Harper, having launched a new ad before Canada Day that says the Conservative government has made "deep cuts to health care." Working Canadians has been attacking Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. The group released an ad that attempts to warn voters in battleground British Columbia against an NDP government that would run the economy "into the ground."
Another group called HarperPAC, which planned to "level the playing field" by attacking Mr. Harper's opponents, launched in June but ceased operations within a week after the Conservative Party became concerned that voters could confuse the third party with the federal Tories and the Harper government.
Mr. Anderson introduced Bill 205 in 2009 under then-premier Ed Stelmach after Albertans for Change, a union-backed third party, spent $2-million in an anti-Conservative campaign.
In addition to campaign-spending limits, the provincial bill limited contributions to third parties to $15,000 in a calendar year and $30,000 in an election year.
In Alberta, some Wildrose legislators are now questioning whether bans on corporate and union donations to political parties simply redirect money to third-party advertising campaigns.
"Discussion needs to take place … to ensure that the money that was a problem when given as a straightforward political donation is not, in turn, recycled into as big a problem with third-party advertising," Wildrose MLA Mark Smith said in the Alberta legislature in June.
Mr. Smith was discussing NDP Premier Rachel Notley's Bill 1, which makes Alberta the fourth province, after Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, to ban corporate and union donations to political parties. Corporate and union donations are banned federally.
The Alberta NDP and Wildrose have proposed an all-party committee to review the province's campaign finance rules.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said in the legislature last month the committee "will be reviewing aspects of the bill that haven't already been covered, including areas like third-party advertising."
The biggest challenge is avoiding any limits to freedom of expression under the Charter.
Regulating third-party ad spending outside of election campaigns could be difficult because "you would essentially have to limit that kind of political speech all the time," Mr. Anderson said.
He said there are many ways for Canadians to express their opinions, such as protests, letter-writing campaigns and through the news media.
"All we're talking about is the ability of certain, extremely well-funded, third-party, special-interest groups essentially dominating the advertising airwaves because they have a lot of money. That, to me, is where there's a line that can be crossed that we might need to look at," he said.
Stephen Taylor, a spokesman for HarperPAC, said in an interview before the group shut down that he and the Prime Minister have been defenders of free political speech. "Political speech and the freedom to it have been something that we've been fighting for, for decades," Mr. Taylor said.
Earlier this year, Elections Ontario reported a jump in third-party ad spending in Ontario's 2014 election, for which groups spent $8.4-million. There are no limits on third-party ad spending during Ontario election campaigns.
In Ontario's election, a union-backed coalition called Working Families spent $2.5-million in advertising against then-Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak's proposal to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs.