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British Columbia With the writ dropped in B.C., third-party attack ads go dark

Both Liberal leader Christy Clark and NDP leader John Horgan were the subjects of attack ads paid for by third-party groups in the lead up to the B.C. election.

Robin Rowland/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Long before B.C.'s election campaign officially began, the province's captains of industry, labour unions and environmental groups spent millions of dollars on ads attacking the leaders of the two main political parties.

As the writ dropped last Tuesday, several websites housing these ad campaigns went offline, their owners opting to go dark before the official campaign so that their partisan efforts would not come under the scrutiny of Elections BC or violate the provincial Elections Act.

Both the incumbent Liberals and opposition New Democrats have been dogged by sustained national and international coverage of the province's lax political finance rules.

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Ontario recently capped third-party advertising spending at $100,000 during a campaign period and $600,000 in the six months prior, but there is no limit in B.C. to how much corporations, unions or wealthy individuals who want to influence an election can spend on pre-campaign political advertising.

The advertisers say they are educating their fellow citizens on important issues while critics argue this "dark money" corrodes democracy in the same manner as U.S.-style SuperPACs: Groups that operate at arm's length from politicians, but function as their proxies to attack opponents and circumvent the spending limits.

There will be no accurate tally of how much of this money was spent leading up to the official campaign, because several of the most prominent groups stopped all activities in order to avoid registering with Elections BC.

John Winter, former CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, led a group of business people that wanted to spend roughly $2-million earlier this year without the scrutiny of the provincial election body. He said he has no qualms about protecting the identity of the other members of his group Future Prosperity for B.C., which got bang for its buck flooding people's Facebook timelines with adverts criticizing NDP leader John Horgan as someone who will "say anything" on pipeline projects to get elected.

"We feel we've done what we can do with what we had, without coming under the scrutiny of the Elections Act," he said. "Why would that be nefarious? You can advertise, you can say what you want any time you want I guess, except during a writ period."

The B.C. Federation of Labour said earlier this year that it planned on spending roughly $70,000 on ads depicting a video game where Christy Clark hurts everyday people while pocketing shiny coins from corporate interests. The union did register with Elections BC to continue advertising over the current election campaign, which means it will eventually have to disclose what it spent beginning six months before the election.

Martyn Brown, former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell's chief of staff, questioned whether either of these campaigns were very effective. He said voters likely already think Mr. Horgan – like Ms. Clark – is a politician and, as such, is willing to change their mind on controversial topics, while the union's campaign was too small in nature to resonate beyond its traditional bloc of supporters sharing it on social media.

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He said there is never any collusion between these third parties and the political parties, but politicians often appreciate this dark money for two main reasons.

"They do all the dirty work and the heavy lifting for the party in defining the opposition," he said. "And secondly, and most importantly, they save the parties money."

Steven Kates, a branding expert who teaches at Simon Fraser University, said these third-party ads will never be the deciding factor in an election, but they could effectively sway some uncertain voters.

"What really matters is whether voters will find these third-party groups credible or believable," he said.

Kai Nagata, communications director with the Dogwood Initiative, said his organization's campaign to ban big money from British Columbia politics began a year ago and continues today.

His group crowdfunded about $3,000 to erect a billboard recently outside Andrew Wilkinson's Vancouver campaign office that criticizes the Liberal politician for his party's reluctance to reform these rules.

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"People really like billboards because it's a visual way to express their displeasure with government policies," he said, adding many of the dozens of people who donated said they lived in the riding.

His group can't afford to do TV, radio or print ads and instead focuses on advertising through social media in order to get the most impact.

"It has to have enough organic buy-in for people to share it," he said.

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