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It’s Open Season for Secretly Funded Political Attack Ads

A scary commercial on Rustad and Falcon is the latest example of unregulated campaigns.

Andrew MacLeod 18 Jun 2024The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on X or reach him at .

With the provincial election still four months away, third-party advertisers are — for now — free to keep their identities secret while spending unlimited amounts to influence the outcome.

The topic came up in a press conference last week with Premier David Eby thanks to an ad attacking BC United Leader Kevin Falcon and Conservative Party of BC Leader John Rustad that has been running on television and digital platforms.

“This October, B.C. families face a returning threat,” says the ad from a group identifying itself as Project for a Strong BC. “Except now there’s two of them?”

Made in the style of a horror movie trailer, the 30-second spot plays ominous music and shows largely unflattering visuals as a voiceover reminds viewers of Falcon’s and Rustad’s participation in former premier Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government, which it says cut health care, raised fees and bridge tolls and made housing unaffordable.

“Now they want to do it all again,” says the ad, which as of Monday had more than 900,000 views on YouTube. “Like Christy Clark, but worse.”

When a reporter asked Eby about the ads, the premier said there are provincial laws that apply to political advertising.

“Third-party advertisers have to follow the rules that are established in the province,” said Eby. “One of the key pieces that I’m certainly proud of as [attorney general] was getting the big money out of politics and making sure that politicians are directly accountable to British Columbians instead of big money interests in the province.”

In B.C., however, those rules apply only in the 90 days before the fixed election date, which this year is scheduled for Oct. 19.

And the strictest restrictions on third-party advertising don’t take effect until the final 30 days before the election.

During that period, which won’t start until Sept. 21, advertisers have to register with Elections BC, be separate from candidates and parties, provide their name and contact information on all advertising and stick to legal limits on the contributions they accept and how much they spend. They may accept contributions only from individuals who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents residing in B.C.

For the 60-day pre-campaign period before that, which starts July 23, third-party advertisers are required to register, but there are no spending limits.

Previous governments attempted to introduce spending limits for the pre-campaign period, but the B.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeal made rulings between 2009 and 2012 that struck those limits down as an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

Advertising ahead of the pre-campaign period doesn’t meet the Election Act definition of “election advertising” and therefore anyone paying for it doesn’t meet the definition of “third-party sponsor.”

That means there’s no requirement to register, no contribution limits, no citizenship or residency requirement and no spending limits.

In the case of the Project for a Strong BC ad that’s currently running, the group’s name doesn’t appear on the running list Elections BC keeps of third-party advertisers. The list was 10 pages long when it was last updated on June 13.

The group’s spokesperson is Megana Ramaswami, a senior strategist with Emdash, an advertising agency with headquarters in Ottawa that works “exclusively with those making the world a better place.”

Funders of the ad are individuals, not unions or other organizations, she said, and they want to remind people of Falcon’s and Rustad’s records on health care, housing and the cost of living.

“We’re basically just everyday British Columbians. We’re B.C. voters from across the Lower Mainland and we are simply just concerned about a lot of these types of issues,” she said.

Ramaswami said the group knows the laws governing election advertising and the campaign will be done before the time when advertisers would need to register. “Elections BC has a deadline for when these kinds of ads have to be out of the field and so they’re going to be on air until that period closes in mid-July,” she said.

This means that by design, the campaign will be conducted in a way where nobody will ever have to say who is behind it and providing the funding, which is good enough to meet B.C.’s laws as they are currently written.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Elections, Media

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