Difference between legitimate third parties and front groups
According to the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, the Working Families Coalition is merely a front group for the Ontario Liberal party, and they want Elections Ontario to designate it as such.
The group, established and funded by education and trades unions in 2002, was established (in the words of Gary O’Neil) “to give a voice to working men, women and their families throughout Ontario.”
According to Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove, the groups purpose is very different. It was established “to make sure the Tories don’t get elected here.”
O’Neil himself is the president of Operating Engineers local 793, a union that has donated more than $65,000 to the Ontario Liberals since 2002.
In a video on the coalition’s website, O’Neil even regurgitates some typical Liberal-style talking points. “With an Ontario election on October 10th, we need to ensure we don’t return to policies of fear and division,” he insists.
The Working Families Coalition is very partisan, indeed. Does that in and of itself make them a “front group?”
Does the involvement of Don Guy, Dalton McGuinty’s reelection campaign director make them a front group?
The involvement of those individuals at the very least undermines McGuinty’s claims that “They're an independent organization and they're going to do whatever they want to do.”
Yet, one can rest assured that so long as Guy and senior Liberal strategist Marcel Weider are involved with the coalition, “whatever they want to do” will probably involve continuing partisan attacks against John Tory and the Conservative party.
That’s far from being independent.
Of course, to regulate every individual interest group as part of a party’s campaign every time they released a partisan statement would actually be setting a very risky precedent.
The right of individual lobby groups to support parties and candidates that support their cause is part and parcel of democratic freedom, and the right to be involved in the democratic process. This is one of the reasons why putting spending limits on third-party campaign advertising is fundamentally wrong.
Gary O’Neil and the Operating Engineers union have every right to donate money to any political party of their choosing. They have the right to support any party they wish, and they have the right to do so as a third party if they so choose, or to do so by becoming directly involved in their party of choice’s campaign.
These two acts, however, are inherently different from one another, and both must be regarded differently by elections law.
To this end, Canada clearly needs new rules regarding who actually qualifies as a third party, and who doesn’t.
The Canadian Auto Workers Union, along with most of the groups backing the WFC (although some may find it difficult to explain how white-collar engineers such as O’Neil qualify as “working families”), qualify as legitimate third parties, holding only indirect links to the Liberal party and New Democrats.
The Working Families Coalition, considering its brazenly partisan foundation, doesn’t. Through Guy and Wieder, the WFC holds some direct links to the Ontario Liberals and their campaign. No Gun, No Funeral doesn’t either. It can be traced directly to Michael Bryant, and as such, both organizations should be counted toward the Ontario Liberal party’s campaign spending.
Colby Cosh is right about one thing: the government can’t regulate partisanship, nor should it try. It can, however, investigate who is involved in interest groups and determine precisely who is pulling the strings. When that turns out to be political candidates and their campaign staffers, it’s pretty fair to conclude that these organizations are being used to tip toe around election spending limits and stage shadow campaigns against their political opponents.
A shadow campaign is still a campaign, and should still count toward election expenses, at least when the candidates are directly involved.