OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper is accusing NDP Leader Tom Mulcair of being in cahoots with union-backed groups doing the same kind of questionable pre-election political advertising that a conservative group abruptly shut down this week.
The sudden fall of HarperPAC came hours after Harper lashed out in a Quebec radio interview against the NDP’s own ties to union-backed efforts to campaign against his re-election.
Harper was asked whether he worried about the Americanization of Canadian politics in the face of unions pledging to fight the Harper government and this week’s creation of the pro-Harper group by former Conservative staffers.
Harper, who once unsuccessfully advocated up to the Supreme Court of Canada for unlimited third-party spending as head of the National Citizens Coalition, said it was a question of “free speech” but said predecessor governments and his own have “limited donations to political parties to protect the integrity of the Canadian system. And now these groups can amass larger donations to do partisan things.”
Interviewer Eric Duhaime told Harper that Mulcair had denounced such tactics earlier in the week on the same show, and Harper scoffed.
“Seriously? Mr. Mulcair? Mr. Mulcair — these are the messages of the NDP, these ads. And we have before our Parliament a law to ensure transparency of the money of union members, and Mr. Mulcair and the NDP oppose transparency in these unions, because I am certain the NDP works very closely with these unions and their ads.”
Mulcair had said he was concerned about the rise of such third-party groups, suggesting they become vehicles to skirt the “very strict rules on the amount you can spend in a campaign.”
“But if all of a sudden, people can spend exactly the same amount or five times that however they want because they call it a HarperPAC or they call it Working Canadians or whatever, well . . . it’s not skirting the law in the sense it breaches the law, but it skirts the spirit of the law,” Mulcair said.
“So there is a breach there, which is important because the public will not know what the information is and who it’s coming from.”
Mulcair blamed Harper for starting it all back when he was with the NCC, but when pressed about whether he’d reject union dues being spent on campaigns to support the NDP, Mulcair said: “No matter what . . . I’m against it and I want there to be clear rules that apply to everyone. That’s the base in democracy.”
HarperPAC, created by a group of former Conservative government staffers and supporters, abruptly ceased operations hours after the Toronto Star reported Thursday the Conservative Party was looking at “legal remedies” to halt any confusion over whether it was a creation of, or tied to, the Harper-led political party.
Elections law in Canada strictly limits annual donations to political parties, bans corporate and union donations altogether, and restricts election-period spending and advertising by political parties or by third-party supporters.
Kory Teneycke, who handles the Conservative Party’s advertising and campaign messaging, had said HarperPAC’s effort was unwelcome and potentially politically damaging. “How would you feel if someone appropriated your name and your brand and attached it to a website and to advertising you have no control over . . . and used it to raise money?” he asked. He said the group was named and marketed in such a way that it’s “what we think is false advertising and deliberately confusing to people.”
Despite its brief appearance, Stephen Taylor, HarperPAC’s spokesman, declared a victory of sorts, saying the group was glad to have kick-started a “fevered discussion” around the issue of third-party money in “pre-writ political campaigns.”
Former Elections Canada chief Jean-Pierre Kingsley told The Canadian Press he wants others — including the left-leaning Engage Canada — to follow suit.
“I think they should all shut down,” Kingsley said.
“Don’t set up shop, wait for the writ to be dropped and then register as a third party as you’re supposed to. And follow the rules.”
Engage Canada, which launched a new ad online and on television Friday, describes itself as “non-partisan” but did not respond to a request to speak to its principals. Spokesperson Jessica Hume in an email dismissed Kingsley’s recommendation, saying “Engage Canada is operating with the current legislative framework.
“As I recall, it was Mr. Kingsley who gave Bill C-23 (the Fair Elections Act) an A minus when the legislation was introduced.”
Hume also wrote: “The Harper Conservatives have rewritten elections rules and weakened the ability of officials to investigate election fraud. The Conservatives have skewed the political financing rules to their advantage and brought big money back into politics. In fact, between use of their taxpayer-subsidized partisan advertising and their own political war chest, the Conservatives are spending tens and tens of millions of dollars trying to buy Canadians votes.”