Latest third-party group will help offset left-leaning counterparts: Flanagan

OTTAWA — It’s hardly a surprise to see political organizers on the right side of the political spectrum pushing back against union-financed third-party groups on the left, says a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Tom Flanagan, a retired University of Calgary political science professor, said he’s hopeful that HarperPAC, the newest entry, will help to offset the pre-writ advertising efforts of its left-leaning counterparts.

“I think it is a matter of self-preservation for the Conservatives to be able to fight back,” Flanagan said in a phone interview Wednesday. “If everybody starts doing it, we may well get some regulatory legislation, but there is none now.”

HarperPAC, the brainchild of a team of Conservatives that includes several former political staffers, launched earlier this week with an appeal for help from politically minded Canadians who support Conservative values.

Spokesman and adviser Stephen Taylor, a former director of the National Citizens Coalition, said the group was formed specifically to respond to a number of left-leaning organizations that have cropped up in recent years.

Taylor specifically referenced Engage Canada, which was launched earlier this month by former Liberal and NDP strategists.

Neither group is legally obliged to disclose their finding models; in Canada, third-party groups can accept money from anyone, anywhere. Nor are there are any limits on their advertising efforts in the period leading up to the election call.

“Since Engage Canada launched earlier this month we have and continue to receive donations from individuals, groups and organizations across the country,” spokesperson Jessica Hume said in a statement.

Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley fears Canada is going down a path similar to the U.S., where political action committees, or PACs, raise and spend untold amounts of money to influence political outcomes.

“We don’t know who is contributing … we don’t know how much they are going to be spending,” Kingsley said. “There is no legal obligation and therefore no legal penalty for lying to us.”

Flanagan, however, said he doesn’t believe that PACs in Canada will ever reach the scales they have in the U.S.

“The PACs, at least the ones that get reported about in the U.S., raise quite a bit of money and they run major campaigns on television and spend millions, tens of millions of dollars, in advertising,” Flanagan said. 

Their Canadian counterparts “aren’t going to get big bucks.”

Flanagan said he would favour disclosure legislation that would require all third-party groups to show who is donating money. But regulating pre-writ advertising is complex, he warned.

Taxpayers are already paying for free Conservative advertising in the form of federal cabinet ministers travelling across the country to roll out policy announcements ahead of the fall election, he said.

“Government has all kinds of levers to pull, which I don’t think you can regulate away,” he said. “If you try and regulate other forms of political expression, you leave the government holding more cards.”

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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