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Third-party ads making their mark on Alberta election conversation

A Youtube ad by political action committee Project Alberta aims to highlight controversies surrounding UCP leader Jason Kenney. (Screenshot

Albertans looking to unwind by watching a quick cat video or movie trailer on Youtube may have recently noticed a collection of Jason Kenney Russian nesting dolls appearing on their screen first.

It’s one of a handful of paid advertisements purchased by Project Alberta, a left-leaning organization registered with Elections Alberta as a third-party advertiser, or political action committee (PAC), for the ongoing election campaign.

Third-party advertisers have raised more than $1.8 million, combined, since the election advertising period began Dec. 1, according to contributions reported to Elections Alberta. There are 26 currently PACs registered, although a handful haven’t declared any fundraising dollars yet.

Such groups are required to register with Elections Alberta and report their contributions when they spend, or plan to spend, more than $1,000 on political advertising. In 2017, the NDP tweaked election funding regulations to limit the amount of cash third-party groups can spend in the months before an election, capping it at $150,000 from Dec. 1 until the day the writ is dropped.

PACs can spend an additional $150,000 each from the day the election is called until ballots close.

“I think the rules that are in place are challenging. I think the rules should be challenging,” said Mark Wells, a former communications director for the Alberta NDP, who launched Project Alberta in December 2017.

“Because people do have a right to speak and they have the right to put their opinion forward, third-party advertisers put a venue in place for outside, non-party interests to have a say in the election process,” said Wells.

“The spending limits (reduce) the effects and the extent to which third parties can influence the electoral system. Really it should be the parties that are the main players in an election campaign.”

One of those groups, the Alberta Federation of Labour, has come under criticism from the United Conservative Party, this week. The UCP alleged on social media that the group, which has raised more than $130,000 from various unions, was operating in unison with the NDP.

Siobhan Vipond, who is listed as the PAC’s primary contact on Elections Alberta’s website, was also named at the bottom of an NDP fundraising email as the party’s treasurer earlier this week.

Under rules introduced by the NDP, “third parties are prohibited from colluding with political parties.”

Vipond did not return requests for comment.

Those on the other side of the political spectrum have faced similar accusations.

Last October, the NDP filed a complaint to the province’s elections commissioner calling for an investigation into Shaping Alberta’s Future, a right-wing PAC. The NDP claimed the PAC circumvented donation limits and was acting as a fundraising apparatus for the UCP.

The Elections Commissioner addresses any breaches of legislation regarding the role of PACs, however no breaches had been identified as of Wednesday, according to Kevin Lee, director of election finances for Elections Alberta.

Lee said Elections Alberta will review financial statements, due six months after the polls close, to see what was spent on a given advertisement and when it ran, in order to ensure PACs stay within their spending limits.

“We look for a couple things,” Lee said. “One is that they’re applying the rules as far as disclosure on their advertising, as to who sponsored or authorized and then the contact information for their group or third-party organization.”

But for now, the only gauge of PACs’ election-related activity is how much money they have received from contributors, a figure that must be reported to Elections Alberta. As there’s no limit when it comes to those contributions, they are allowed to accept more than the $150,000 they can then spend during each of the election period.

As of April 11, Project Alberta had brought in $135,000 since the election period began in December, all of which from trade union UNIFOR. The PAC’s mission “is to encourage voting for parties that support economic equality and social equality” and to oppose parties that lack those values, according to Wells, who added its ads focus “on the shortcomings of the United Conservative Party.”

The group is spending all fundraising dollars on digital ads, primarily on Facebook and Youtube. Its Russian doll spot on Youtube, titled “How much do you really know about Jason Kenney?” emphasizes Kenney’s record on LGBTQ rights, his history campaigning against abortion rights, the UCP’s leadership race controversy, and more.

But no group has raised more this election cycle than Shaping Alberta’s Future, which had brought in $298,000 combined over the pre-writ and post-writ halves of the election period, according to Elections Alberta. Its donations include $75,000 from Surge Energy and $30,000 from Crew Energy, in addition to a $50,000 contribution from Michael Rose, president and CEO of Tourmaline Oil.

The PAC states online, “We are united by conservatism. We believe in free enterprise. We support Jason Kenney.” Among its advertisements, Shaping Alberta’s Future has garnered attention for its authorized website, titled “NDPFacts.ca,” which features accusations surrounding the past shortcomings of NDP candidates.

Representatives of the organization did not return a request for comment, but in a previous news release, it stated the attack website is “designed to give Albertans the facts about the Alberta NDP before they vote.”

“It’s important that voters know what their potential representatives stand for and ndpfacts.ca will give fact-based information about Alberta NDP candidates so voters can make up their own minds,” the PAC stated.

Meanwhile, the Alberta Teachers’ Association has self-raised $270,000, with the sole purpose of bringing awareness toward the issue of overpopulated class sizes, according to president Greg Jeffery.

He said overcrowding in schools has hurt teachers’ abilities to offer the necessary individual attention each student needs, and so far, no party is promising to fix the issue.

“None of the parties have addressed class size directly,” he said.

The union produced 400,000 postcards for teachers to distribute by hand, along with billboards, radio and digital ads. It’s also come out with ATA-branded sardine cans which contain the union’s messaging, including information on class size data throughout the province.

Others, like the UCP-inclined Merit Contractors Association and Alberta Victory Fund, have about $292,000 and $159,000 with which to work, respectively. The latter is run by John Weissenberger, Kenney’s former campaign manager for his successful runs at the Progressive Conservative and UCP leaderships.

In a newspaper ad Friday, the PAC stated that “the NDP has failed on fighting the carbon tax” and claimed the NDP’s climate plan reduces GDP and growth “while having a negligible effect on carbon emissions.”

Weissenberger declined to comment, but previously told Postmedia the Alberta Victory Fund was created specifically for the 2017 UCP contest and would shut down last year.

Another PAC called Firefighters for Alberta, funded entirely by the Alberta Fire Fighters Association, has brought in close to $87,000

Those funds are being used for an internal messaging campaign, using social media and postcards, to encourage union members to vote NDP and raise awareness for issues facing firefighters across the province.

“It’s really a members-focused, issues-based campaign, focusing on issues important to our members, health and safety, those sorts of things,” said Craig Macdonald of the Alberta Fire Fighters Association.

The list of third-party advertisers registered with Elections Alberta for the election advertising period also includes (with contributions up to April 11):

  • Health Sciences Association of Alberta ($96,763.68)
  • Alberta Proud ($74,350.44)
  • Public Interest Alberta Society ($53,010.11)
  • Kenneth Gregory ($50,000)
  • Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association ($45,100)

shudes@postmedia.com
Twitter.com/SammyHudes

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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