The start of Ontario's election campaign is a little over six months away, but the battle for voters' hearts and minds is already being waged as a new advertising landscape looms.
Both the province's political parties and the special interest groups known as third parties will, for the first time, have caps on how much money they can spend on advertising starting Nov. 9 — six months before the writ drops.
For third parties, who have wielded considerable influence in previous elections, this will be the first time they have any spending maximums at all, including during the campaign itself. Until the rules changed this year, Ontario was the only jurisdiction in Canada to regulate third-party election advertising but impose no limits on it.
The Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals and a few third parties have put out ads recently, ahead of the restrictions kicking in, leaving Ontario already seemingly in the midst of a campaign months ahead of the June 7, 2018 vote.
The Tories — the party with the most money in the bank after a fundraising blitz last year — have been running ads all year that only feature leader Patrick Brown talking to the camera against a stark white backdrop. One of the party's challenges is that polling consistently suggests Brown is unknown to half of Ontarians.
But other ads go full bore into negative territory, showing a picture of Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne's face against a red backdrop and snippets of negative headlines.
The Liberals themselves recently released a positive ad, highlighting two of their most popular policies — a $15 minimum wage and free tuition for low- and middle-income students. The ad also features Wynne herself, a potentially risky choice, given her personal approval ratings of under 20 per cent for the better part of a year.
Deb Matthews, the deputy premier and Liberal campaign co-chair, admitted it's "an unusual strategy."
"I think it's an approach that is different, but as I say, this was the ad that the premier really wanted to run," Matthews said. She doesn't believe it will backfire, calling Wynne the party's "greatest asset."
But while the Liberal ad strikes a positive tone, the Tories allege third-party groups are doing their dirty work, which the Liberals deny.
The Working Families Coalition, known for influential anti-Tory ads in previous elections, has recently put out their new offering. It depicts Brown as a weather vane and highlights inconsistencies between his current positions on social issues and previous votes as a federal MP.
Patrick Dillon with Working Families said the coalition is trying to spend what it can before the restrictions — which he says he personally finds "disgusting" — take effect.
"We're going to maximize what we can do up to the deadline in November, then in a more moderate scale we'll have to scale back for the next six months," he said.
Working Families Coalition spent $2.5 million during last year's campaign, with contributions from some of the province's biggest unions. in 2014, third parties spent $8.64 million, which amounted to 17 per cent of all election spending.
Unions were some of the largest third-party advertisers, with teachers unions spending several million.
Now they will be limited to spending $600,000 on advertising in the six months before the campaign and $100,000 during it. Political parties will be restricted to $1 million in the six-month, pre-election period.
Progressive Conservative Lisa MacLeod said it was frustrating that third parties used to be able to spend more money in attack ads — mostly against her party — than all of the political parties, though she suspects now those massive spends will be split up over several third-party groups.
"I'm really getting very tired of watching these third-party organizations run millions in attack ads against (former PC leaders) Ernie Eves, John Tory, Tim Hudak and now Patrick Brown," she said.
Another new factor this election will be social media-based groups such as Ontario Proud. The anti-Wynne group has already been wielding influence online, where it has amassed more than 260,000 Facebook followers — far more than the major three parties combined, as it likes to point out.
Ontario Proud's Jeff Ballingal said he plans to put that to use as an officially registered third party this election. They have already bought digital ads ahead of the restrictions.
"There's never really been a third party that's been able to counteract the Liberal allies," he said. "We're able to reach more with less money because of the power of social media. We have such a large audience and an engaged audience online that we can put out a video and not spend any money on it and still thousands of people will see it."