A new political action committee named HarperPAC released its first radio ad earlier this week. According to its website, the new PAC intends to “fight back against the flood of big union money that has been earmarked to take down the Harper government.”
But in its haste to join the pre-campaign orgy of third-party ad spending, the Conservative attack dog has chosen a name that may run afoul of the Canada Elections Act.
Outside of the official writ period, third-party groups face no limits on what they can spend and no oversight of their operations. But once the writ is dropped, the newly formed PAC may be in violation of Canadian law if it continues to spend money on advertising.
Political action committees, long popular in the United States, support candidates with whom they remain officially unaffiliated. This allows them to raise unlimited funds from secret donors and make claims their candidate could not support.
In Canada, they’re called third parties, and during election campaigns they’re required to register immediately after having incurred over $500 of election advertising expenses.
“A third party may not be registered under a name that, in the opinion of the Chief Electoral Officer, is likely to be confused with the name of a candidate, registered party, registered third party or eligible party,” states section 353 of the Canada Elections Act.
Ricochet contacted Elections Canada to see if it would consider the name HarperPAC “likely to be confused” with that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Spokesperson Diane Benson responded by email that all such questions were speculative in nature. “The Canada Elections Act generally covers what goes on during the writ period and the writ for the next general election has not been dropped. The rules for third parties do not apply outside of a writ period.”
Who is HarperPAC?
HarperPAC is spearheaded by a group of former Conservative staffers and strategists, including Jonathan Denis, former Alberta justice minister, and Stephen Taylor, former director of the National Citizens Coalition. HarperPAC is identified in the Ottawa Citizen as a project of the ConservativePAC Foundation, a non-profit corporation registered with Industry Canada. Taylor, who has been identified as spokesperson for the PAC in media reports, told the Citizen that he is the sole director of the ConservativePAC Foundation.
Ricochet reached out to HarperPAC by email, after calls to its media number went to a recording with no mailbox, to ask if the group intends to continue operating after the writ is dropped and, if so, whether it intends to register with Elections Canada as a third party. The group was also asked if it had concerns that its name might be in violation of the Canada Elections Act.
Taylor responded with a short email declining to comment on these questions.
In interviews with other media outlets, he has underlined the importance of the PAC sharing the name of the political candidate it supports.
“It is really branding to let someone know, within the half second it takes to hear the word, what we are up to,” Taylor explained to the Canadian Press. “The name HarperPAC, I think you pretty much ... know, what kind of things that we'll be up to.”
'Back in the jungle'
But third-party stalking horses for political parties really have their roots in the PACs that have “made a mockery of campaign-finance laws south of the border,” wrote Adam Radwanski in the Globe and Mail this week. He said the emergence of PACs offers “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.”
“We are in, effectively, a free-for-all zone,” former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley told the Canadian Press. “It took us 40 years of scandal, sweat to come to a regime where we had the best in the world for control of money in politics ... now we are back in the jungle.”
While the actions of third parties during election campaigns have traditionally been heavily regulated in Canada, the advent of fixed election dates introduces the prospect of unofficial election campaigns waged over months and years, not weeks.
These U.S.-inspired groups are exploiting an absence of regulation on the use of money to influence the political process outside the narrow confines of the official campaign period.
“Secret PACs and the Americanization of our voting system do not serve Canadians,” Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, told Ricochet by email. “And I am convinced that the Harper government will discover that on election day.”