When a new third-party group suddenly arrived on the federal scene at the start of this week, unveiling an advertisement that attacks Justin Trudeau on Stephen Harper's behalf, the temptation among those concerned with the ethics of our political campaigns was to recoil in horror.
Their fears are valid. But rather than blaming HarperPAC, as it has evocatively branded itself, they should be thanking it.
Owing to our move toward fixed election dates, and adoption of strict rules around donations to political parties, Canada is witnessing the emergence of something akin to the "political action committees" (PACs) that have made a mockery of campaign-finance laws south of the border – groups that, so long as they keep a nominal distance from the parties they support, are able to do those parties' bidding without the accountability the parties themselves would face.
Other such organizations that have emerged in recent months, on both the left and right, have given themselves blandly ambiguous names like Engage Canada and Working Canadians. By calling itself a PAC, the latest entry has done more to kickstart a debate about whether we need new rules to govern such things. And the good news is that it has done so before any of these third parties really quite have their acts together.
There are least two reasons why they could have a big impact on our elections, both of which offer legitimate cause for alarm.
The first is that they give renewed opportunity for disproportionate influence to precisely the people and interests from whom successive Liberal and Conservative governments have legislated it away. While personal donations to a federal party are capped at $1,500 annually, and corporate and union ones banned altogether, there are no restrictions on contributions to outside groups. So HarperPAC could be funded entirely by a few businesspeople. Engage Canada, a group organized by Liberals and New Democrats to which HarperPAC may or may not be a response, seems to be a vehicle for unions to pay for ads attacking Mr. Harper. It's hard to know, because donor disclosure isn't required.
The second is that the groups can run attacks ads the parties themselves might avoid, because they wouldn't want to be held accountable for the tone or the content. HarperPAC's first radio ad makes the dubious claim that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau blames Canadians for his party's recent polling numbers. The Conservative-friendly Working Canadians has been airing a radio spot that attacks Mr. Trudeau for accepting fees for past speeches. Engage Canada's television ad uses dodgy math to claim income inequality growth under the Conservatives' watch.
Making full use of those advantages, though, requires a lot of groundwork in terms of amassing funds and developing a messaging strategy. And reassuringly, it seems likely the various groups have been too slow off the mark to have their intended impact on the first election after their formation.
Federal election law sets a low spending cap of a little over $200,000 nationally per outside group once an election has officially begun. The opportunity to have influence is before that, when restrictions are almost non-existent. But despite knowing the election date for the past four years, the groups have only managed to launch ads in the final months, just as many voters likely tune out for summer.
Further blunting their impact for now is the fact that even summer advertising is somewhat constrained, because three by-elections are technically underway in Ontario. Although those will be folded into the general election once it begins, third parties can't run ads in the affected ridings. That keeps them out of entire media markets, most notably Ottawa's. It also means they have to avoid national ad buys on television channels, such as specialty stations, that can't carve out the markets in question.
Even setting aside those restrictions, the groups still seem some distance from being ready for prime time. As of Tuesday, HarperPAC had yet to purchase air time. The Conservative activist who is leading it, Stephen Taylor, says its efforts will largely be digital; that might make sense given changing consumer habits, but can also be code for having little money. Engage Canada is said to have collected millions of dollars from unions, but so far its efforts aren't at the scale of Working Families Coalition, a union group that has tormented provincial Tories in Ontario elections and seems to be Engage Canada's inspiration, let alone what has been seen south of the border.
Still, the ball is rolling. As another Conservative associated with HarperPAC put it this week, partisans on all sides are testing the third-party boundaries. The groups will be trying to get a sense of what works, and what doesn't, and will presumably aim to build on their efforts before the next election after this one.
It may be there aren't that many people looking to fund these sorts of activities nationally here. Likelier is that it will just take a while to find them. It's generous of emergent PACs to draw attention to themselves now, and offer a chance to consider whether we want to risk going into another election with the pre-writ period still being open season for anyone who wants to anonymously throw money at influencing the outcome.