How interested outsiders use ‘third party’ status to promote causes, influence election

With an election underway, parties are officially on the hunt for the votes of Canadians, criss-crossing the country and campaigning right up to Sept. 20. And to fund all that travel, advertising and election gear, parties will be shelling out a lot of money.

But political parties and candidates will not be the only groups spending big in the election campaign. “Third parties” are also in the mix and will be hoping to shape the political conversation, get their issue prioritized and build up or tear down other political actors.

Third parties get far less attention than the big political organizations that will eventually send MPs to Ottawa, but they can still play a significant role in influencing debates and campaigns. So what do they do?

What are third parties?

In general, third parties can be any Canadian individual or organization that participates in political activities during the election period (from the day the election is called to election day), as long as they are not registered political parties, electoral district associations or candidates.

During the election, third parties must register with Elections Canada once they’ve spent $500 on regulated activities. So far, just under 50 entities have registered as third parties in this election.

In the last federal election in 2019, a broad array of third parties registered with the country’s electoral agency over the course of the campaign, ranging from unions like Unifor, to issue groups like the climate action organization 350 Canada, to ideological enterprises like the conservative Facebook group Canada Proud. All three of those groups have already registered in this election.

Then there are always a handful of individual Canadians who take a fancy to spending a chunk of change on boosting their own voice.

Jerry Dias heads up Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union and also its biggest-spending third party from the 2019 election. (The Canadian Press)

What do third parties do?

There are three different types of regulated activities for third parties. Most activities you’d usually think of taking place in an election fall into one of the three broad categories.

Advertising: This category includes what you’d traditionally think of as election advertising — boosting a message through spending money online, on TV, radio, in print or elsewhere. Regulated advertising includes anything that promotes or criticizes an actor such as a political party or candidate or, during an election campaign, an issue that is closely associated with a political actor. Billboards were a popular and controversial advertising outlet in the last election.

Partisan activity: Partisan activity is a catch-all category for other things that promote or oppose political actors, such as door-knocking or phone-banking. Notably, simply taking a position on or talking about an issue closely associated with a political party, without naming that party or candidate, is not included in this category.

Surveys: Commissioning a survey or poll about voting intention or on a political issue associated with parties is regulated if it’s used to help the group decide whether to carry out other activities, or how it will do so.

An anti-immigration billboard placed by a third party in the 2019 election was widely denounced and eventually removed by Pattison Outdoor. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

The question of what issues are closely associated with political parties can be a difficult one. Concerns were raised in 2019 that environmental groups would need to register because of the People’s Party of Canada’s climate-skeptic position and that registering would endanger the charitable status of some of those groups. The CRA clarified that registering with Elections Canada would not in itself risk charitable status, as long as charities continue to conduct only activities allowed by legislation that governs their operations.

But Elections Canada does not maintain a list of issues closely associated with political parties, and also notes that an issue may not be closely associated with a party at the start of a campaign, only for it to become closely associated later on, affecting whether subsequent activities would be considered regulated or not.

What kind of money is at play?

According to a limit set before the election call by Elections Canada, third parties are able to spend up to $525,700 overall during the campaign, but no more than $4,506 on activities in any given electoral district (like a billboard promoting a local candidate). But in 2019, only a handful of third parties ran up against a similar expenditure limit.

In the lead-up to and during the 2019 campaign, 140 registered third parties spent almost $12 million on regulated activities, according to their electoral campaign returns filed with Elections Canada. About three-quarters of that spending came during the formal campaign period itself, while the other quarter was spent during the “pre-election” period, which in 2019 was the time between June 30 and the start of the official campaign in September.

Former Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff (right) and Ken Neumann, the United Steelworkers’ national director for Canada, pictured in 2017. The CLC-funded “Fairness Works” third party was 2019’s fourth highest spending third party, the USW was the second highest. The CLC is now led by Bea Bruske. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

That compares to the more than $26 million the Liberals, for example, spent on the general election during the 2019 campaign, of which almost $14 million was advertising. So while third parties are by no means insignificant spenders during an election, political parties still far outpace them.

Spending by third parties is also heavily concentrated in just a few major organizations. The top 10 groups in 2019 accounted for over half of the total spending, and the top 20 groups made up three-quarters of all spending.

Unions are by far the biggest players: seven out of the top 10 groups in 2019 were unions or organizations funded by unions. Unifor and the United Steelworkers took the top two spots, while groups representing nurses and public service workers were also included. Non-union groups in the top 10 were the Canadian Medical Association, Canada Proud and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (which advocates for more funding for the CBC but is not affiliated with the CBC).

It’s worth noting that there are no limits on how much money contributors can donate to third parties — and a contributor could be a Canadian individual, corporation or union.

How is this election different from 2019?

It’s early days in the election and much could change in the coming weeks, so it’s hard to say which groups or issues will rise to prominence and what role third parties will play in prompting that shift.

The biggest difference between an election this year and the one in 2019 is the lack of a regulated pre-election period. From June 30, 2019, until the day before the start of the official campaign on Sept. 11, third parties were restricted in how much they could spend, and they had to meet disclosure requirements.

But with no pre-election period this year —  they only apply to fixed date elections, which if not for this early election call would have taken place in October 2023 —  third parties were free to spend as much as they liked before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took his walk to Rideau Hall on Aug. 15.

Several groups, such as Unifor, made major expenditures before the election was called that may not need to be disclosed in detail to Elections Canada, as long as the advertising did not persist into the election period.

What other rules do third parties need to follow?

Third parties need to follow a range of rules and regulations during the election campaign, including a ban on colluding with political parties for the purposes of evading the party’s own expense limit.

In general, foreign entities and individuals cannot register or act as third parties in Canadian elections, although there are exceptions for foreign corporations that do business in Canada. Nor can Canadian third parties use foreign funds for election purposes.

Third parties must also set up and draw from a bank account created specifically for the purposes of the election campaign.

Elections Canada has also added a some newer rules to address novel concerns — for example, third parties can accept contributions in cryptocurrency and the contribution amount is determined by the commercial value of the cryptocurrency at the time of donation.

Rules and regulations governing third parties have changed significantly over the past several decades, with the current system solidifying in 2019. The full list of rules to which third parties are subject can be found at the Elections Canada website.

An expert view

There are a few interesting issues when it comes to third parties in the ongoing election, according to Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s school of public administration.

The first is that third parties may actually be able to play more of a role in setting the agenda earlier in the campaign this year.

“Third party activity might be really important, depending on how it works out, in being involved in setting a ballot question. Because there’s not really one now apart from ‘Do you want the Liberals or not?'” Turnbull told CBC News before the election call.

She said that it would also be interesting to track how different third parties were choosing to spend their money as an overall shift to more digital campaigning in Canadian politics has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, there were already significant differences in spending strategy between member-outreach organizations, such as Unifor and mass digital advertising campaigns, such as Canada Proud.

Jeff Ballingall, founder of the Canada Proud Facebook page. Ballingall also worked on Erin O’Toole’s leadership campaign. (CBC)

“The move to social media does affect the extent to which money can be relied upon as a reasonable proxy for political expression — so spending limits are not the whole story,” she said.

Finally, Turnbull noted that there are always going to be concerns about enforcement of all the rules and that any regimen is a “balancing act” between free speech and a level playing field.

“The law is always going to be a work in progress, it’s never going to completely seal off the possibility something could go wrong.”

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