‘Chilling third-party speech’: stakeholders weigh in on Bill 254

By Allison Smith March 30, 2021

The Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly heard from a fleet of stakeholders Monday on Bill 254, the legislation that doubles political donation limits and extends the per-vote subsidy.

The top concern voiced at the hearings was that the PC’s proposal to extend the pre-election period that governs third-party spending from six months to 12 will have a “chilling” effect on political speech.

Canadian Civil Liberties Association director Cara Zwibel and Aurora Strategy Group president Marcel Wieder and others argued that change is bad for democracy because it disadvantages groups that want to speak out against Queen’s Park policy.

For example, if a budget is tabled within a year of the campaign period, a third-party group that campaigns against it could outrun its pre-election spending limit (which is about $637,000) and wouldn’t be able to advocate against legislation introduced in the following months, Wieder explained.

PC MPP Donna Skelly flipped the script on Wieder, bringing up his ties to the Working Families Coalition, a big-spending, Liberal-friendly coalition of unions he has consulted for over the years.

Through Bill 254, the PCs are aiming to tamp down the millions of dollars advocacy groups spend ahead of election campaigns. “Ontario is the only province in Canada where third-party spending is counted in the millions of dollars, rather than in the thousands,” the attorney general ministry said when the legislation was tabled last month.

However, a 12-month restriction on third-party spending is “likely unconstitutional,” according to Democracy Watch’s Duff Conacher, who wants that provision scrapped from the bill or referred to the Court of Appeal for a ruling before it is enacted.

At issue for non-profit groups is that “public benefit charities” are treated the same as industry lobbying groups under the legislation.

“We don’t regulate trucking firms the same way we regulate school boards,” Ontario For All coordinator Sean Meagher told the committee. He also pointed to Bill 254’s collusion rules, which ban third parties from coordinating their messaging or using the same vendors, stating they will add red tape to “public benefit” non-profits while placing less of a burden on “pop-up” political advocacy groups.

Representatives from teachers’ unions called the PC’s move to hike individual donation limits to $3,300 per year “self-serving” and warned that joint advocacy campaigns — like the one enacted during last year’s teachers’ strikes — could be deemed collusion under the proposed law.

Meanwhile, Elections Ontario CEO Greg Essensa gave his stamp of approval to a measure that scraps audits for financial statements of less than $10,000. He said the elections agency often has to audit campaigns that spend nil, which is costly and unnecessary.

The bill’s move to level the fundraising playing field for Independent MPPs by allowing them to raise money outside writ periods — something Randy Hillier had been pushing for — was opposed by York University politics professor Robert MacDermid.

He argued that ousted MPPs would be functionally operating personal constituency associations that, unlike political parties, have no motive other than to further a member’s re-election prospects.