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Shadowy Lobby Groups Want to Influence the Election, Canada’s Political Parties Don’t Care

Well, responsible democracy, we've had a good run.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
June 26, 2015, 9:46pm

Prime Minister Stephen HarperPAC—er, Harper. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

HarperPAC is dead! Long live the HarperPAC!

On Thursday night, Stephen Taylor announced that HarperPAC, after just a few short days, would be closing up shop as the country's go-to deregulated, shadowy pot of money dedicated to getting Stephen Harper re-elected.

VICE News reported earlier this week on the dawn on HarperPAC and its left-wing rivals.

Taylor was the group's primary spokesperson, and his decision to roll up the red carpet came as a pretty big surprise to everyone.

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Taylor tweeted the news with an oddly chipper: "It's been a heck of a week! Here's an update on HarperPAC."

The "update," of course, is that it was dead.

"We brought the issue of third party financing out of the shadows," the statement read, as though the intent of the shadowy lobby group was to shed light on the terrifying dark netherworld of pre-election campaign spending, instead of being a unregulated shell corporation for the Conservative Party.

"We were pleased to drive a very fevered discussion about the place of third party money in pre-writ political campaigns," it goes on.

HarperPAC drove the discussion around the place of third party money in the same way that a dumpster-fire drives a discussion about fire trucks.

But the death of HarperPAC isn't exactly a victory for responsible democracy in Canada. In fact, things may get worse.

HarperPAC wasn't the only shadowy cabal of election agitators, though they were the only ones with the decency to publish a list of their organizers.

In fact, the left is much more guilty of this than the right. Between unions and other lobby groups, so-called progressives are the ones funnelling unmarked money into our political system.

Engage Canada, which began before the pro-Conservative lobby group, has not openly published who is running it, who is donating, whether it's coordinating with the NDP and Liberals, or even how much money it raised.

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When VICE tried to find out anything about the group's finances, a spokesperson said: "we're not going to talk about money."

And they don't have to.

Thanks to Canada's campaign finance rules, third-party advertisers (or PACs, or SuperPACs, or whatever you want to call them) are basically unrestricted in what they're allowed to do.

Political parties can only receive $1,500 per person, the details of each must be published quarterly, and they must report their complete financials to Elections Canada every year. They cannot receive money from foreign entities, unions, or corporations. They may spend unlimited amounts of money in the lead-up to the election campaign (currently scheduled to begin in mid-September) but will be limited to a roughly $20-million spending cap each during the campaign itself.

Third party groups, on the other hand, can do whatever the fuck they want.

PACs can receive as much money as they want, from whoever they want, and do whatever they want with it (except donate it to a political party.) They don't report to anyone, and aren't required to disclose any finances or contributions. The Pope could donate the entire Vatican to Engage Canada, and they could use it to buy everyone in Canada a new car. (Please let this happen.)

While third-party advertising must cease during the campaign period itself, these PACs still have all summer to bludgeon our democracy to death.

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Blofeld could start the SPECTRE-PAC. Dr. Claw could found M.A.D-PAC. Serpentor could invent COBRA-PAC.

I mean, this could be how Canada's most feared secret criminal organization begins. Is that what we want?

At least in the United States, there are rules around this. While SuperPACs there might be monstrosities bloated with vote-buying money, at least most of them are required to report their earnings, and are forbidden from cooperating with the campaigns they're endorsing.

Here in Canada, those rules don't exist. No rules. There aren't any rules. There are just no rules. None. No rules.

Stephen Harper, when he got elected, cracked down on money in politics—he's the one who set the tough contribution limits, and banned corporate and union donations—but he's also the one who set fixed election dates. That's pretty much what led to this nonsense, by sending a batsignal to every political operative that they have a clear window in which to campaign for/against their party of choice.

And that's where we're at.

Engage Canada, according to Stephen Taylor anyway, has over a million bucks in the bank, to be used entirely to try and oust Stephen Harper from the iron throne. They've already produced two television attack ads targeting the Harper government.

On the other side, there's Working Canadians, an anti-union, anti-tax group that's been going after the Liberals. They've managed to muster two particularly gross radio ads.

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In one of the ads, they basically accuse him of stealing from charities.

So we thought we'd give a chance to all three major parties to officially denounce this travesty of democracy, and commit to banning this evil.

We asked them specifically whether they support HarperPAC and Engage Canada, and whether they'd introduce legislation to end the practise if they were to win.

Here's what the Conservatives told us:

We restored accountability in Ottawa by introducing the Federal Accountability Act, banning union and corporate political donations, expanding access to information legislation, and creating new oversight bodies including the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.

That all happened nine years ago.

The Liberals, of course, opposed these measures. The choice for Canadians in this election is clear—the proven leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper or the high-tax, risky NDP and Liberals.

Yeah, that didn't really answer the question.

Though after the HarperPAC shut down, the Conservatives were happy to voice their displeasure with it.

When we asked the NDP, they didn't release a full statement, but assured us that Mulcair has said that the PACs represent an "Americanization" of the Canadian electoral system, and that regulations ought to be tightened. Then they sent us the following fundraising email.

This week, we learned that Stephen Harper's friends have set up a U.S.-style group called The Harper PAC to spend an obscene amount of money on Harper's re-election.

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It's the kind of money we've never seen before in Canadian politics, and it's up to us to fight back right now.

Donate $5 or more before the June 30th filing deadline.

Obviously, we have seen that money before in Canadian politics. Longtime NDP organizer Kathleen Monk, who still remains close with Mulcair's party, is one of the Engage Canada organizers.

And here's what the Liberals told us:

We strongly believe that fundraising rules are important for our democracy. We do not support any initiatives which aim at finding "loopholes" in the current legislation and taking advantage of them. The Conservatives are always trying to circumvent the laws, this just being another example. The HarperPAC, run by conservative insiders, is the ultimate example of the Harper conservatives disregard for transparency, fair elections, and democracy. On our side, efforts are put toward continuing to grow our donor base and engage more Canadians in our movement not in trying to find creative ways to sidestep the spirit of the electoral legislation, which is clearly intended to have citizens (not corporations) participate in the electoral process through political donations.

Obviously, the Liberals failed to note that Engage Canada is also doing this work, and is also being directed by several Liberal strategists.

So no party has actually said they'll ban these slush funds outright.

That should make you very angry.

Maybe you should start a SuperPAC to let political parties know your thoughts.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.